When the Sky Falls: Joel’s Struggle with Housing and Asthma

Drip. Drip. Drip. CRASH.

The sound you just heard was Deborah Stinson’s ceiling collapsing.

For more than six months, Ms. Stinson and her 9-year-old twins’ only option was to live in an apartment with rats, mice, cockroaches, holes in the walls and extreme water damage—damage so severe that Ms. Stinson’s home was falling apart around her, endangering her family.

Poor housing conditions like mold and rodents often exacerbate illnesses like asthma. In this case, they led to Ms. Stinson’s son, Joel, suffering asthma attack after asthma attack.

That’s why Children’s Law Center (CLC) and Ms. Stinson began working together.

“Though she did everything in her power to improve her family’s living conditions, her landlord wouldn’t so much as replace Ms. Stinson’s wet, molding carpet,” CLC attorney Diana Sisson said. “Ms. Stinson knew the repairs were critical, because Joel’s asthma was getting worse and worse.”

Ms. Stinson contacted not one, but two government agencies: first, the Department of Energy and Environment’s Healthy Homes program, and second, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the agency responsible for enforcing the housing code, which requires landlords to fix problems and keep homes safe.

While DCRA found violations, involving the agency wasn’t enough to make her landlord act. Due to Ms. Stinson’s limited income, moving wasn’t an option.

The landlord’s solution to the hole in the family’s ceiling—the one caused by water damage—was covering it with plywood and not addressing the rest of the water damage. He didn’t care about the rodents or bugs. Even worse, each time Ms. Stinson asked for the repairs her family desperately needed, he would retaliate by taunting her through texts and emails.

As Joel’s asthma attacks became more frequent and more serious, Ms. Stinson and Sisson knew it was time for legal action.

Sisson represented Ms. Stinson in a suit against the landlord—and won. The court found the landlord guilty of multiple DC housing code violations and ordered him to repair Ms. Stinson’s home.

“Without Diana, this man wouldn’t have done anything.” Ms. Stinson shared. “When Children’s Law Center got involved, that’s when I saw a 100 percent turnaround of work actually being implemented.” 

Once the repairs were made, Joel’s asthma attacks stopped. He continues visiting Children’s National’s IMPACT DC asthma clinic, a CLC partner, to manage his remaining symptoms.

Ms. Stinson says she is particularly grateful that Sisson not only got the landlord to fix her home, but she also taught her that she has a  legal right to safe living conditions. 

Now, she wants all DC families to fight for the homes they deserve.

“Especially when you have a family and you’re working hard to give them the best life possible, you have to remember that you have the right to live in a proper space,” Ms. Stinson shares. “Be proactive and don’t be intimidated. Your family deserves it.”