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D.C. residents have little help in dealing with bad neighbors, say legal experts

August 30, 2018

D.C. residents are often left to their own devices in dealing with loud, aggressive or even violent neighbors, landlord-tenant legal experts say.

Repeated calls to 911, restraining orders and complaints to city agencies are often the only remedies available, albeit temporary. But in some cases, those processes require more time or money than people in crisis can afford.

For example, a Congress Heights resident told The Washington Times she is still recovering from the shock of nearly being stabbed Sunday by a man in her Southeast neighborhood. She and a neighbor had intervened after he had punched a woman, she said.

The resident, who asked not be named for fear of her safety, called the police and from her window took pictures of the man as he later sat on the front steps of his mother’s residence in Congress Heights.

A Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson confirmed that officers did not arrest the man but declined to comment further.

The Congress Heights resident said that, over the past 11 years, she repeatedly has called 911 and complained to the neighboring property’s owners, who have done nothing about tenants who have brought crime and litter into the area around her home.

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine recently moved to address such issues: He sued the owners of three properties in Southeast and Northeast, accusing them of allowing their properties to become “heroin dens” that generated hundreds of 911 calls from scared neighbors.

But attorney Emilie Fairbanks, who specializes in landlord-tenant issues, said it’s a “fault of D.C. law” that bad tenants are difficult to evict. Not even restraining orders or criminal convictions can expedite the eviction process, which can up to take a year, she said.

Dorene Haney of the law firm Nathan A. Neal Dorene M. Haney noted that D.C. law allows problem tenants the opportunity to mend their ways before being evicted. An eviction can be halted if a tenant ceases his or her disruptive or non-compliant behavior within 30 days of being served an eviction notice by a landlord, she said.

What’s more, D.C. law sets a high burden of proof on the landlord to evict a tenant for being a “nuisance,” said real estate lawyer Aaron Sokolow.

“You need evidence that this [case] rises to the level of nuisance and that this is not just the negative, common result of people living in an urban environment,” he said.

Mr. Sokolow also said that residents’ complaints to city agencies about nuisance neighbors can fall flat when the property’s owner is unknown.

“It doesn’t achieve a whole lot of good if no one knows how to contact [the owners],” he said. “Like most things in life, communication can only help.”

D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman, at-large independent, early this summer introduced a bill that would require limited liability companies that buy rental properties to disclose the owners’ names to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

A Silverman staffer told The Times the current draft of the bill does not apply to houses that are sold, only rented, but said a public hearing is in the works to revise the legislation this fall.

Councilmember Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Public Safety Committee, declined to comment.

Ms. Fairbanks said a last-ditch option for residents to protect themselves from nuisance neighbors is to get a restraining order, which she said can be a “daunting process.”

Consulting with lawyers to review application materials is an expense not everyone can afford, she said. And applicants will need to take time off work to attend multiple court hearings.

Ms. Haney added that another option is for residents or landlords to file a civil lawsuit against the nuisance neighbor to “seek [monetary] damages against the person who did the crime.”

The attorneys said it’s possible to sue a property owner for the harm his or her tenants had caused, but it would be tough to prove he or she was negligent.

“If the landlord did absolutely nothing, then maybe you’d have a cause of action,” Ms. Haney said.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mary J. Cuthbert in Ward 8 said good neighbor relations are important, but it isn’t fair to expect people to put up with dangerous or harmful individuals around their homes.

“Everybody wants to live in a decent neighborhood, not all that fighting and drinking and drugging and you can’t rest and you’re embarrassed to have people over,” she said. “Nobody should have to live like that.”

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