The D.C. Council unanimously approved a measure that requires landlords to provide photographic evidence that tenants have been given notice of eviction cases against them. The measure was a new amendment added to emergency renter protection legislation the body was already scheduled to consider.
The amendment came in response to a lengthy investigation from DCist that uncovered hundreds of instances in which process servers — the people landlords hire to deliver summonses to tenants in eviction proceedings — filed affidavits that were likely false. In many cases, this could have meant that tenants were completely unaware that their landlords had initiated eviction proceedings. If tenants don’t show up to their initial hearing, they lose by default.
Joseph Gelletich told DCist that is what happened to him: he didn’t receive notice of his suit, failed to show up to his court hearing, and later could not get that initial decision overturned. He remained homeless for at least a year.
“I admit that I was behind on rent and that was on me,” Gelletich told DCist. “But I was given false information. Maybe I still would’ve gotten evicted if that hadn’t happened. I don’t know. But at least I wouldn’t feel like I was tricked and that nobody cared.”
The issue of process servers claiming to serve tenants when they probably didn’t is often referred to as “sewer service.” It’s a problem that advocates say goes back decades.
In just two months, the investigation found that two process servers — Karl Stephens and Matthew Buck — filed more than 600 affidavits that would have likely resulted in the eviction case being dismissed if they were brought to a judge’s attention. They had inconsistencies where the process server would have had to travel impossible distances to visit tenants’ home or claimed to be in two places at the exact same time. On one date, Stephens swore that he attempted to serve 16 D.C. tenants while he was sitting in a Maryland courtroom dealing with a legal matter of his own.
“Currently, it is nearly impossible for a tenant to prove, with any certainty, that notice was or was not actually posted on their property,” says the rationale for the new amendment, co-introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. “To ensure that notice is actually posted on a tenant’s property, this amendment would require that anytime service is required in a landlord-tenant case, and the landlord chooses to effectuate service by posting, the landlord must provide the Superior Court with photographic evidence, including the date and time, that the notice was posted on the tenant’s property. If the landlord does not provide this photographic evidence, the Superior Court must dismiss the eviction proceeding.”
The new legislation also requires landlords to provide tenants with written notice at least 30 days before starting eviction proceedings, requires the court to seal certain records related to eviction proceedings, prevents landlords from evicting their tenants if they owe $600 dollars or less in unpaid rent, and institutes other protections for renters facing eviction.
Earlier this year, D.C. Superior Court also announced that it would also start mailing letters to tenants to notify them about hearing dates. Advocates say that while the mailing is a positive step, it is still important to ensure the accountability of process servers — especially since mail service is inconsistent in some D.C. neighborhoods and some tenants do not have working mailboxes.
Advocates and elected officials have said that addressing issues with the evictions process will be especially important when the city’s eviction moratorium expires. Evictions in D.C. will be suspended until 60 days after the city’s pandemic-induced state of emergency ends.
“While evictions are prohibited during the current public health emergency, a wave of evictions is likely to come as soon as the prohibition is lifted; thousands of District residents have lost their jobs and back rent is piling up for them,” wrote the lawmakers in the rationale for the amendment. “One way to protect those tenants is to ensure that landlords and the process servers they rely on are following all of the rules the Council has put in place to ensure due process.”
Cheh tweeted Tuesday morning that in addition to the amendment, “we will certainly need a comprehensive look at how to improve this process & bring in [D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine] to pursue the clear acts of fraud.”
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office wrote in an emailed statement that the office was already looking into the issue of landlords failing to properly notify tenants of eviction proceedings “from both an enforcement and a policy perspective.
“This issue has been on our radar for some time, but we’ll decline to comment further,” said the statement.
Allen said Tuesday that in addition to the new measure requiring photographic evidence, he hoped to work with advocates and the Council to move forward additional legislation to address eviction processes during the upcoming legislative session.
“This is not a new problem, it’s just that we didn’t have such compelling, detailed reporting showing the depth and systemic nature of this problem,” said Allen. “This issue certainly will require a broader permanent measure, and we should reconsider how we regulate the process service industry.” Allen said he planned to work with advocates and the Council to move forward additional legislation in the future.
Tuesday’s amendment was one of four possibilities for reforms included in DCist’s investigation. At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said Tuesday that the city should consider the remaining reforms, which include instituting a licensing procedure for process servers, having the Attorney General’s office enforce the law more actively, and requiring eviction notices to be served in person.
“When a story like this comes out and my email box is flooded with resident outrage, we want to act quickly, and I agree,” said At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. “But we also need to act thoroughly. The entire eviction process needs to be, I think, examined, and all of these recommendations made in the story deserve our consideration.”
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