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Funding legal aid for today, tomorrow, and the future

As DC communities continue to experience an increased need for many services, we are uniquely positioned to expand, collaborate, and make a greater impact. This is our opportunity—and responsibility—to develop community-informed solutions that will benefit the most vulnerable for years to come.

Earlier this month, when I testified during the public hearing on Mayor Bowser's FY23 Budget request, I made a plea for an increase in the Access to Justice Initiative funding. As the pandemic continues in its third year, the DC Bar Foundation is an integral partner in response efforts. We remain committed to providing residents with a wraparound service approach that will eliminate barriers in legal services, housing, healthcare, and other areas.

As we think about how best to serve DC residents, we know our work cannot be done without two key elements: collaboration and listening. We are the most effective when we clearly understand the problems facing our communities and when we work in partnership with our stakeholders to create efficient and streamlined responses.

Over the last year, we made centering community voices and experiences one of our top priorities. We hosted several client focus groups, launched a participatory grantmaking program, and conducted client surveys on how court processes can be improved. Now, it is time for us to expand upon this work.

This list provides a breakdown of anticipated civil legal aid needs in FY23:

  • The Access to Justice Grants Program ($16.739M) provides vulnerable District residents access to legal assistance and representation. This funding will develop a game-changing Coordinated Intake and Referral System and other technological innovations and infrastructure to deliver legal services more efficiently. This system will create a more streamlined approach to connecting DC residents to the services they need.

  • The Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program (CLCPP) ($8.0M) helps DC residents avoid eviction and potential loss of affordable dwelling units, especially at a time of unprecedented need.

  • DC Poverty Lawyer Loan Repayment Assistance Program (DC LRAP) ($950K) helps legal aid attorneys pay off their often-staggering student loan debt by offering a forgivable loan of up to $12K/year to pay off their educational debt. This program serves as an incentive for civil legal aid organizations to attract and retain skilled lawyers, which will allow DC residents to obtain the legal representation they need.

The District's civil legal aid network continues to be inundated with requests for services. Although stay-at-home orders have been lifted and operations within the city have resumed, many are still trying to recover from problems created due to the pandemic. We also see that unemployment in the District is trending downward, but that will not immediately solve the financial burden families continue to endure.

The rent moratorium on evictions was lifted for new cases filed after October 12, 2021, creating a new set of problems requiring tenants to pay back rent or face eviction. In a city where Black and Brown people already faced housing disparity before the pandemic, it is ever more critical that we have the legal aid resources to ensure we keep families in their homes.

It is well documented that the pandemic disproportionately impacted residents of color. As we prioritize racial equity and racial justice, additional funding will create positive, life-changing outcomes for District residents, which will make the community more stable and more equitable.

The reality is that COVID-19 is forcing us to show up differently. We are collaborating in ways we never have before. There is a desire within our community to do things differently, but we cannot do it without the additional resources we have requested. This is a critical time for DC, and our goal is to ensure every need is met, and our most vulnerable are supported throughout this recovery period.


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