In 2015 and 2016, community leaders, service providers, and residents in the District of Columbia, backed by a fellowship from The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, pin-pointed an area of acute unmet need in the nation’s capital: legal help for low-income families with often life-altering problems arising from debt. By all accounts, debt-related problems were widespread and severe; 95% of low-income residents received no legal help in such cases -- though the help was highly effective for those who did obtain it -- and predatory lending and debt collection lawsuits were disproportionately targeted at communities of color.
For example, a survey of low-income DC residents by the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers, as published in the 2016 Community Listening Project report, showed that nearly half of survey participants reported problems with debt, and over 31% cited problems with debt collectors in particular. Of these same survey participants, however, only 11.3% ever sought legal help, and only about 5% actually received any.
The vast majority of low-income community members, lacking access to legal counsel, suffer a range of adverse consequences, including default judgments, impaired credit ratings, credit report problems that reduced future job prospects, and, for hundreds, suspension of their driver’s licenses. In the worst of cases, unfavorable debt judgments set off a spiral of events culminating in unemployment, homelessness, and/or prison. Those who do get legal help have successful outcomes most of the time--winning the case outright or settling on terms that are compatible with their cash flow capabilities.
A group of determined volunteers, including several with consumer protection and debt-related legal experience, decided to take steps towards closing this persistent justice gap. Tzedek DC Founder Ariel Levinson-Waldman was granted a ConnectGens Fellowship by the Jewish Federation to incubate the idea and organization. Following an extensive period of research, community and provider consultations, and handling of cases in Superior Court pro bono, Tzedek DC was founded as the first legal services group focused principally on safeguarding the rights of low-income DC residents facing crises related to debt collection and other consumer protection problems.
We opened our doors on February 1, 2017 as an independent public interest center at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. At Tzedek DC, we work in collaboration with law students, community organizations and service providers, and pro bono attorneys from the private bar to close the justice gap for low-income DC residents facing debt-related crises.