A gavel.
credit: Credit: Joe Gratz

District residents facing eviction or shelter termination may soon have access to free legal services in landlord-tenant court.

A bill proposed in late September would give tax dollars to the D.C. Bar Association to fund grants for selected legal services providers to offer pro bono counsel to District tenants that are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

Ward 5 City Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie proposed the bill, following a June 29 roundtable he held with experts on the subject. The bill is co-sponsored by Councilmembers Jack Evans, Anita Bonds and Elissa Silverman.

Dubbed “civil Gideon,” in reference to a Supreme Court case that established the legal right counsel for all defendants in criminal cases, the bill is part of a national push to guarantee legal counsel to civil defendants in high-rent jurisdictions like the District.

According to data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half of D.C. renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing each year, which is the federal standard for affordability. Rent payments constitute an even larger burden for low-income residents, who spend about two-thirds of their income each year, according to a 2015 D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute study.

“Eviction is the royal road to homelessness,” testified Jim McGrath of the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition at an October hearing. “You could have been a model tenant for 30 years — you still could be 30 days away from an eviction notice if you don’t come up with the rent.”

Legal representation tends to be uneven in the District, with 95 percent of landlords and only 5 percent of tenants finding legal representation in eviction proceedings, according to the Washington Legal Aid Society. Supporters of the bill said that although pro bono lawyers do accomplish a lot, they lack the necessary resources to field the growing number of eviction cases in the District.

McDuffie said he didn’t know how much the bill would cost taxpayers, but said he would request a fiscal impact assessment. For reference, according to an American Bar Association study, the criminal defense system cost about $81 million in 2008.