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Eviction records could be sealed or expunged under D.C. proposal

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Evictions can hinder tenants from finding stable housing for years

U.S. Marshals carry out an eviction in D.C. (2012)
The Washington Post/Getty Images

As Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond demonstrates in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 book “Evicted,” housing evictions can have serious consequences for tenants, including problems finding homes in the future. In the District, current law does not provide for eviction records to be sealed or expunged by the courts, so tenants can carry them for life.

That could change under legislation proposed this month by Ward 3 D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh. As drafted, it would allow D.C. judges to seal or expunge eviction records in a number of circumstances, and it would also require them to seal all eviction records three years after an eviction proceeding is resolved in court. Cheh says the goal is to offer “long-needed relief to tenants” and help ensure that evicted renters can find affordable housing.

“An eviction is a permanent mark on a tenant’s record, harming one’s ability to find safe and secure housing,” she said during a June 18 D.C. Council meeting. “Eviction records can have devastating consequences for tenants. Landlords may charge a higher rent based upon the presumed risk posed by the tenant, or they may refuse to consider the tenant’s application outright.” The harms are acute for those who have experienced homelessness, Cheh added.

Beyond the changes to how eviction records are processed, the bill would bar discrimination in housing on the basis of a person’s having a sealed eviction record. Furthermore, it would prohibit real estate transactions, such as residential leases, from being conditioned on the disclosure of sealed eviction records. The legislation would do this by amending the city’s Human Rights Act, which renders various forms of discrimination illegal in several areas.

Part of the thinking behind the bill is to address eviction cases that are filed in error or are legally shaky, like when tenants lawfully withhold payment of rent because of poor housing conditions, Cheh explained: “Situations where a tenant had adhered to his or her lease and to District law should not result in an eviction record for the tenant, let alone a permanent one.”

A majority of the Council preliminarily supports the legislation, which has been referred to the Council’s government-operations and housing committees for review. The committees are led by Ward 4’s Brandon Todd and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, respectively. Cheh previously introduced a version of the bill in 2018, but it lapsed at the end of the year.