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Order Invalidating Eviction Filing Moratorium Raises Concerns for D.C. Tenants

January 26, 2021

By Matt Stephen

Apartment Building

A D.C. Superior Court judge overturned the District’s eviction filing moratorium in December, ruling that the ban on new eviction filings is unconstitutional. The change will not result in immediate evictions because the court did not strike down the eviction moratorium itself, but the order allows landlords in some cases to file complaints for eviction during the public health emergency and allows cases that have been filed to proceed.

“Ending the filing moratorium will not directly result in any evictions during the public health emergency,” D.C. Superior Court Judge Epstein said in his decision. “Nor will ending the filing moratorium automatically result in a flood of new eviction cases,” given that D.C.’s emergency legislation prohibits serving notices to quit (normally a prerequisite to filing an eviction action for non-payment of rent) until 60 days after the public health emergency ends.

Although the order may not result in significantly more court-ordered evictions, just the threat or act of filing can cause serious harm. Gabriella Lewis-White, the Pro Bono Center’s Housing Managing Attorney, responded to the ruling: "Though actual eviction may not be immediate, the Superior Court's decision to strike down the eviction-filing moratorium as unconstitutional still has an adverse impact on residential and commercial tenants in the District. The mere filing of an eviction action can scare tenants into vacating their homes or their businesses.” Lewis-White continued “Many of the tenants at risk do not understand their legal rights or do not speak English. If these tenants end up living in shelters, with family members, or other communal living spaces, they will face an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.”

The D.C. Attorney General shares these concerns. In his January 15 motion to stay the Superior Court’s order, the Attorney General cited statistics showing that “jurisdictions that enacted eviction-related moratoria and then allowed pre-eviction proceedings to resume saw faster and larger increases in the spread of COVID-19 and resulting deaths compared with jurisdictions that suspended eviction notices or filing.”

Struggling local businesses may be affected even more by lifting the filing moratorium. The emergency legislation on notices to quit does not benefit most commercial tenants who have waived their right to a notice to quit and can now be forced to appear in court to defend against eviction. And because under court rules, small business owners (other than sole proprietors) cannot represent themselves in D.C. Superior Court, they now must either retain a lawyer to defend against the eviction action during the public health emergency or risk default.

The overall impact of the order invalidating the filing moratorium is yet to be seen. Some eviction actions will proceed in court but under D.C. law, with limited exceptions, court-sanctioned evictions cannot begin until the public health emergency ends. As of this article’s publishing, the District’s public health emergency extends through March 17, 2021. While the federal eviction moratorium extends through March 31, its provisions are generally viewed as less protective and tenants must apply to receive coverage under the act.

Lawyers interested in helping residential tenants or small businesses defend against eviction actions can train with the Pro Bono Center and volunteer through our Advocacy & Justice Clinic or our Nonprofit and Small Business Legal Assistance Programs.

The Pro Bono Center’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic is also currently recruiting law firms and federal government attorneys to represent individuals facing public benefits and family law matters. The Pro Bono Center offers our volunteers training, expert mentors, and other resources to allow them to handle cases successfully. For more information, visit our volunteer page or email [email protected].

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