Today, more than 11 million families spend over half of their incomes on rent, and for the poor, it can be as much as 80 percent. That means millions of Americans face the threat of eviction, or they live in substandard housing because it’s all they can afford. NPR’s Pam Fessler has been spending time at the rent court in Washington, D.C., where the struggle between low-income renters and landlords over affordable housing often comes to a head.
In some places, it’s called rent court or housing court. Others, eviction court. In Washington, D.C., it’s known as the Landlord and Tenant Branch. This is where landlords in the city sue tenants, usually because they failed to pay the rent.
Each weekday morning, dozens of people can be seen filing into the three-story courthouse where their cases will be heard. And maybe their fates decided. Everyone passes through a metal detector. Women with small children. Elderly tenants with walkers and canes. Several of those who gather in the hallway wear work uniforms. They’re nurse’s aides, security guards, grocery store clerks.
The tenants are among the city’s poorest residents. And while this city’s population is less than half African-American, according to U.S. census data from 2014, almost every single tenant here — day after day after day — is black. The white people are usually attorneys.
In the wood-paneled courtroom the loud wooden pews squeak loudly during roll call of the day’s cases, which can run into the hundreds. This court had 32,000 cases last year alone. In an effort to help lighten the caseload, the judges encourage tenants and landlords to try to work out a settlement before they’re called into the courtroom. And many of them do, often with the help of a court-appointed mediator.
‘Could Be’ Homeless
“My name is Lisa Brown. I live in Southeast Washington, D.C., in Atlantic Terrace. I’m currently $6,000 plus in arrears, of back owed rent.”
Outside the court, Brown says she calls herself the new face of the “could be” homeless. She has just signed a deal with her landlord. If she doesn’t come up with the money she owes in a couple of weeks, the landlord can evict her from the apartment she shares with her three children and a grandchild. Brown works at a hotel, but she says it isn’t enough.