On June 29, Bread for the City hosted a lunchtime discussion with Judge Melvin Wright and attorneys from both sides of the landlord/tenant divide. The topic of discussion was the one-year old D.C. Superior Court Housing Conditions Calendar – or “fix-it court,” as Judge Wright referred to it.

The “fix-it” court is the brainchild of a committee formed two years ago to address the fact that DC tenants lacked an expedient and effective forum to bring grievances against landlords for poor housing conditions. One year in to the Housing Conditions Calendar, this group met to look back at its successes and failures of the Calendar.

We can see some of both.

Before the “fix-it court” existed, tenants had few options when it came to disputes with landlords about housing conditions. They could pay a $120 filing fee to institute an action in the Civil Division (a time-consuming task), or they could withhold rent in demand of repairs. That course of action would often result in landlords bringing suit against them in Landlord and Tenant Court, where they could present housing code violations as a defense – but risk eviction in the process.

So while there was previously no way for tenants to sue landlords in in Landlord and Tenant Court, they are now enabled by the Housing Conditions Calendar to seek injunctive relief through claims of Housing Code Violations. The court has the authority to compel a landlord to correct violations so that the property complies with the housing code (though the court cannot compel the landlord to provide other relief, such as monetary damages).

The process for a case on the Housing Conditions Calendar was designed to be user-friendly and easily navigable for both tenants and landlords. On this point the Calendar has largely succeeded. Judge Wright estimated that parties have been able to proceed unrepresented in over 70% of cases. That was one of the primary goals of the committee.

One of the key elements of this success is the design of the Housing Conditions Calendar Complaint form (available here in PDF), which includes a checklist of housing code violations that make up the complaint. With this simple process, many tenants can successfully make claims without needing an attorney’s guidance.

Another critical element is the inclusion of a Housing Inspector in hearing proceedings. This Inspector can be dispatched almost immediately and report his findings back to the court. This unique feature helps “fix-it court” settle factual disputes about the state of the apartment without delay, typically without evidentiary hearings — and it facilitates consensus between the parties. Judge Wright stressed that such consensus (reached without the need for an official order) is another central goal of the Calendar.

Despite these evident successes, both tenant and landlord attorneys voiced some significant concerns about the Housing Conditions Calendar.

Bread for the City’s own Legal Clinic Director Vytas V. Vergeer noted that tenants often find it difficult to properly serve complaints to landlords, which is a necessary step in moving forward. Judge Wright acknowledged this issue, and noted that the court itself will soon issue notices by mail to landlords of claims against them, and will also employ a process server for instances when notice by mail fails.

Vergeer also expressed frustration with the lack of rules of civil procedure specific to the Housing Conditions Calendar, a concern that was voiced by multiple landlord attorneys as well. For instance, it is unclear what effect a housing conditions claim brought by a tenant against his landlord might have on a claim involving the same parties in Landlord and Tenant Court. There is an evident need for the development of a set of governing regulations to ensure that the Calendar functions effectively alongside Landlord/Tenant Court.

The Housing Conditions Calendar makes the District one of only three places in the nation with a special forum in which tenants can sue their landlords for poor housing conditions. Its creation was undoubtedly a big win for tenants. But while this long-overdue forum has significantly improved the ability of tenants to seek relief from poor housing conditions – making it cheaper, easier and faster to do so – it nonetheless still falls short of providing tenants legal tools equal to those available to landlords.

Judge Wright hinted at a possible reconvening of the committee to look into some of these issues — and that could pose an important opportunity to push for even greater gains in tenant rights in the District.

Editors’ note: The ‘fix-it court’ was originally conceived and implemented as a result, in large part, of the dedicated advocacy of a whole tenants’ rights community, including Bread for the City’s legal clinic, our fellow legal services partners and housing organizations, and many active District tenants. One of the primary venues for that advocacy has been the Tenant Town Hall, where solutions to the city’s housing problems are proactively demanded.

This year’s Tenant Town Hall is tomorrow! It’s one of the primary opportunities to engage in discussion and advocacy around these critical issues that are so essential to the livelihood of our community. Please join us, alongside the Latino Economic Development Corporation and concerned organizations and tenants from across the city, at the 2011 Tenant Town Hall (Saturday, July 16th), at 2:30 pm at First Trinity Church (309 E St NW – next to the Judiciary Square Metro).