RHA v. Winston
Part of Disability Rights NC’s mission is to secure fair and equitable access to basic housing for people with disabilities, many of whom receive federal housing subsidies. Per federal regulations, prior to an eviction, landlords must provide tenants in federally-subsidized housing with notice as to why they are being evicted. Further, the notice must be specific enough to allow the tenant to prepare a defense to the eviction. This regulation is key to protecting tenants from being steamrolled by housing providers in the eviction process.
In RHA v. Winston, the NC Court of Appeals ruled that landlords may provide this notice by simply citing a general lease provision, rather than referencing the specific alleged conduct resulting in eviction. DRNC was part of a broad coalition that challenged this ruling at the North Carolina Supreme Court. Other advocates included the North Carolina Justice Center, North Carolina Housing Coalition, North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, and the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The decision by the Court of Appeals would have prevented tenants from exercising their rights under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) because they would not have notice of the specific reasons or conduct for which they faced eviction. An important defense available to tenants with disabilities under the FHA includes the right to assert the need for a reasonable accommodation that would make housing and services provided by the landlord (or housing authority) accessible to them. Because a tenant may request a reasonable accommodation at any point, including during eviction proceedings, details about the conduct of which the tenant is accused are especially important to ensure the notice is specific enough for the tenant to prepare a defense to the eviction. A tenant who is threatened with eviction based on behaviors related to his/her disability may raise a reasonable accommodation request as a defense to the eviction. A vague termination notice deprives tenants of the opportunity to raise such a defense – particularly for tenants with intellectual disabilities or mental illness. Such tenants’ disabilities may impede their decision-making abilities or make it difficult to understand the connection between a general lease provision and the conduct of which they are accused. Importantly, these tenants are precisely the individuals who could benefit from a reasonable accommodation defense to eviction, however without notice that is accessible to them, that defense would be unavailable.
DRNC collaborated with partners to submit an amicus brief to the NC Supreme Court that highlighted the need for specific notice and the adverse effects nonspecific notice would have for our clients. Thankfully, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled the Court of Appeals and reaffirmed that housing providers must provide notice of the specific conduct that results in a tenant’s eviction.