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.
"I am considered what they call full time, but I'm guaranteed only 32 hours a week," she says.
For now Brown is counting on her tax refund to avoid eviction.
"But again, my train could be derailed at any given time," she says. "I have an electric bill that's due right now."
And there's next month's rent too. Another $1,200. Her story is typical in housing courts across the country — where tenants tend to be low-income women with children, working at low-wage jobs. Very few get any government housing aid. The irony is that Brown, like many of the tenants here, had to miss work — and a day's pay — to come to court. Her landlord did not. About 90 percent of landlords have attorneys representing them. Most of the tenants don't.
"Tenants often don't know what their rights are. They enter into agreements that settle the cases that are very unfavorable to them," says Rebecca Lindhurst, from Bread for the City, one of several groups that provide pro bono legal aid to tenants. But Lindhurst says they can handle only a small number of cases, which is unfortunate for all the others.
"For instance, lots of tenants are sued for nonpayment of rent," she says. "And in those situations, they have the right to raise a defense of housing code violations. And oftentimes tenants don't know that they have that right. Or they're afraid or uncertain how to present such a defense."
If a tenant isn't there at the start of the day when his name is called, he could lose his case and be evicted. Still, it can be many more hours before a case is taken up by the court.
The hallway outside the courtroom is lined with seats. This is where tenants wait for their cases to be called or where they meet with their landlord's representative to try to strike a deal. One lawyer calls it "organized chaos" as the parties move in and out of the courtroom trying to reach an agreement.
"I'm not going to tell you it's not stressful. It's extremely stressful," says Judge Judith Bartnoff, who presides over the civil division of D.C.'s Superior Court. Judges rotate weekly through the Landlord and Tenant Branch, in part because the workload can be so draining. Still, Bartnoff says the court tries to be as fair as possible.
"There are a lot of protections that tenants have in the District of Columbia and that's part of the reason why the caseload is so high," she explains.
She notes that landlords here can't just throw someone out on the street; they need a judge to agree. And tenants can request a jury trial, which can stretch the process out for months. Indeed, some tenants come to court armed with photos of moldy windowsills, leaky furnaces and backed-up sinks, to help make their case for withholding rent. Tenants like Joy Wilson.
"You have my water that is orange, you can see it like kind of leaking down. You can tell, if it's leaking, that's the color of the water," she says, pointing to one of her pictures.
Wilson stopped paying her rent last July in the hope of getting her landlord to fix things up. She says to no avail. She has another photo of a sink covered in a greasy residue that she says bubbled up from the drain, emitting a foul odor.
"And you can see that it's food, and everything else, from somebody else's house," she says.
Wilson owed her landlord thousands of dollars in back rent and her case was supposed to go to trial, but at the last minute she and her landlord reached a deal, which is pretty common. With all the cases that come up in this court each year, fewer than 2,000 lead to formal evictions. More often than not, tenants move out to a cheaper place, or pay up at the last minute. They know an eviction record will haunt them.
Still, many tenants tell the judge that they just don't have the money to pay the rent, that they have too many bills and not enough income. In some cases, landlords agree to a more lenient payment schedule to help a tenant through a tough period. Other times, they say they want the tenant out, unless they pay up immediately. The judge can rule on the case right away, or hold it over for further action.
It's a drama repeated in courthouses across the country, especially in areas where the supply of affordable housing is limited. The details might vary, but the stories are often the same: Tenants can't afford their rents but have nowhere else to live. Landlords need the money to keep their businesses going.
Other Side Of The Coin
"The saying by most landlords is, the case isn't over until the tenant wins," says Art Nalls, a landlord who owns apartments in some of the city's poorer neighborhoods. He offers a one-bedroom that rents for about $950 a month.
Nalls says that despite appearances, the system does not favor landlords. That it can cost thousands of dollars to get a nonpaying resident out, money he needs to pay the bills and keep his apartments up and running.
"It's a symbiotic relationship. My business only works if people pay their rent and respect the property and not tear it up," Nalls explains.
Like other landlords, Nalls says that he will bend over backward to help a tenant through a difficult time. He says everyone has financial problems once in a while, but some of his tenants have been so much trouble, he has paid them to leave.
"Soon as I see your stuff loaded in the U-Haul truck and you hand me the keys, I will give you five $100 bills," he says. For him, that's cheaper than pursuing a case in court.
And that might have been the thinking in Wilson's case. Her landlord's attorney refused to comment. But her landlord did agree to forgive all of her back rent — $7,400 — as long as she was out by the end of the month.
This story was produced for broadcast by Evie Stone.