Color of Money Live with guests Ariel Levinson-Waldman and Linda Coe

Aug 06, 2020

Welcome to a weekly discussion about your money hosted by Michelle Singletary, nationally syndicated personal finance columnist for The Washington Post.

This week, Michelle discussed debt collection during the pandemic with guests Ariel Levinson-Waldman and Linda Coe.

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Thanks for joining my discussion today. Just to be clear for newbies. This is a "text" chat meaning you send me writing questions and I answer you back in writing. No video or audio. Maybe one day.

And please welcome my guests -- Ariel Levinson-Waldman is president and director-counsel for Tzedek DC and Linda Coe is a staff attorney at Tzedek DC

Pepper these experts with your questions about debt collection. 

Let's get started.

 

How can consumers alert users of their credit reports that negative marks on their credit report are the result of Covid hardships? I understand that there is a new law in DC but that consumers have to make a filing with the credit bureaus to benefit from its protections.

Thank you for that question.

 

 

 

The impact of the COVID-19 financial crisis is a big problem around the country. Many people have lost jobs and wages, unemployment insurance is not keeping up, and bills are piling up on people’s tables. This is starting to have -- and is going to have an even more harmful -- effect on people’s credit reports, which are so critical to financial stability as a credit report can make the difference between getting a rental housing approval, a loan, or a job. Congress has failed to provide relief nationwide, leaving it to state governments. DC has passed an emergency law that took effect in July to address this problem. Thanks to great work on this issues by national advocates like Color of Change and the National Consumer Law Center, we hope other states will too. Meanwhile, for DC residents affected financially by the pandemic, you should take advantage of this new protection and we hope you will tell friends and family about it. 

 

Here are the details:

 

If you are a DC resident and have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 emergency (for example you delayed or missed payments on loans or bills), a new DC law spearheaded by Councilmember Robert White and passed unanimously by the DC Council prohibits certain “users” of your credit reports (including landlords and non-bank lenders) from considering this adverse information against you when they view your credit report. But, this protection applies only if you file a personal statement with each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, Transunion, Equifax).

 

You should file those statements. For a free, step by step set of instructions on filing your personal statement, go to https://www.tzedekdc.org/covid-19-credit

 

This is a service for DC residents that Tzedek DC developed in partnership with Legal Counsel for the Elderly (an affiliate of AARP) and Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP), and our organizations are available to assist / answer questions for DC residents. This information is being made available through the DC public libraries and other channels as well.

Some people who are forced to fall behind in their rent are not likely to have a lot of legal sophistication. What is the landlord obligated to do to pursue a legal eviction, and how can the tenant best respond? And if a landlord threatens an extra-judicial eviction, what can the tenant do about it? Does it become a police matter?

Thanks for your question. Many renters are facing this problem. The first thing you should do is to try working out something with the landlord.  

The federal CARES Act moratorium on evictions expired on July 24. Hopefully, it will be reinstated. But, those landlords are still required to give renters 30 days’ notice before filing an eviction complaint in court. 

If you get a court notice, you should appear to avoid a default judgement against you, which would allow the eviction to proceed.

Local Protections: You should also check your local government, as some have extended further protections for tenants, such as a DC law that was passed that temporarily stops all new eviction case filing that is in effect for the current public health emergency and for the 60 days after it ends. Other States: Check https://evictionlab.org/covid-eviction-policies/ for lists of Covid-related eviction and utility shutoff moratoriums.

Even if you have an eviction moratorium, you will still eventually owe the past rent due. Start talking to your landlord about a payment plan and planning to catch up.

If your landlord tries to illegally evict you, contact your local legal aid society for assistance, and you can tell the landlord that you will call the police or court if the landlord doesn’t allow access or restart utilities. 

I've waited a while to send this in, but today I paid my car loan off. 25 MONTHS EARLY!!! Since I got the loan, I've always paid 13 payments in 12 months, but I really looked at my budget as soon as we went into lockdown for the coronavirus and started throwing all my gas and eating out money at the loan. And it's DONE! GONE! KAPUT!!! Thanks for all your advice and hosting a space that made me eager to come and brag on myself!

With so much bad financial news, this is so welcomed. Thank you for sharing your Thursday Testimony. 

And you can't see me but I'm pumping my fists! So proud of you. 

I've been encouraging so many people who are still working and have the same income but less expenses to attack their debts to free themselves of those debt monkeys on their backs. 

If you know someone who is unemployed, please consider giving a gift of cash. You are helping someone who needs gas for a car, car insurance, phone bill, life necessities like prescriptions. Thanks.

 A great message for folks to hear.  People and institutions/foundations have been stepping up to help those in need, and more is needed as folks are trying to survive the financial crisis of the pandemic.   

I would only add that if you know the person has been irresponsible in the past with money, offer to directly pay the bills yourself. This allows you to provide assistance and make sure your generosity isn't misused. 

I wrote checks from my old bank after it was newly sold and I had received a new account number. The old bank checks bounced of course. The person calling was loud scary and threatening. After I got him to calm down and speak to me like an adult and not an axe murderer, we solved the problem. I know how horrid it is to have strangers threatening you on the phone.

I'm glad you are sharing this and sorry you had to go through this experience.  For you and for all reading today's column, please know that is a federal law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and there are state law equivalents that protect people from abuse in debt collection.  You can get more information by checking with your local legal services (in DC you can contact us at Tzedek DC, 202.274.7386).  

What ai like about this testimony is how you stuck it out to explain the situation even though you were poorly treated. That's how you do things. You stay calm and fight for yourself. 

Hi Michelle, I’m 35 year old woman, single with no kids. I don’t anticipate getting married or having children in the future. No one relies on my income except for me. I have no debt and am saving and investing 38% of my salary in my 401k, HSA, Roth IRA and life happens/emergency fund. I currently rent and am thinking about buying a home in the next few years. My mom got a life insurance policy on me when I was about 20. She wants me to get a new, term life insurance policy and she will end the old policy (I can’t remember what type it is, it’s not term, though). My parents are well off and can afford my funeral if I die before them. I have a life insurance policy through work that is 3 times my annual salary ($95,000). I recognize that work policies aren’t ideal because they only last as long as I’m with the company. But given my circumstances, I don’t think I need much more life insurance than the work policy (it’s about $10/month). I looked up term life insurance policies today and they are reasonably priced (between $20-55/month depending on the length and coverage level). My questions for you are twofold, do I need this an additional policy? And if yes, how much should I get and for how long?

I agree with you that you don't really need a life insurance policy. And your parents don't need to pay for one for you.

What I would do is perhaps put one or both of your parents on one of your bank accounts with enough cash reserve to pay for your funeral. It might take some time to settle your estate to get to retirement money. Even if your parents have the money, you want to make sure you leave an easy way for them to cover your funeral expenses and that could be money inn a bank account with them as the "pay on death" or POD. beneficiary. Or, as a co-owner of the account. I prefer the POD option. 

And I'm sure you have one but make sure you have a will.

Upon my death, I would like to leave some money ($50,000) to my HBCU alma mater to establish an annual scholarship. The funds will come from either my life insurance or my government Thrift Savings Plan. Is naming my university as a beneficiary of my life insurance or TSP the best way to make this happen? Should I also update my will to name the university as a beneficiary? I explored creating a trust but am worried about the fees to establish and maintain a trust?

Wow. How wonderful of you. I honestly think you should consult an estate attorney to make sure your wishes are carried out the way you want. You may not need an expensive trust but you do need to make sure you have what's needed in place. 

If college students take time off during 2020-2021 due to pandemic, how will affect student loan status?

Thanks for a great question.  You should check with your student financial aid office and your lender.  Check https://studentaid.ed.gov and federal student loan borrowers can find out who to contact at: https://nsldsfap.ed.gov/nslds_FAP/. 

The CARES Act suspended federal student loan payments (at zero interest) from March 13 through September 30. This time period still “counts” if you are on a public service loan forgiveness program. Borrowers may also ask their servicer to refund any payments made during the COVID-19 suspension.

This will not change your monthly payment when you resume payments in October; it will instead add the months to the life of your loan. Accrued interest will not be capitalized at the end. Suspended payments are not missed payments – they should be reported to credit bureaus as fulfilled payments.

Some private lenders have been offering relief options, but you should be careful to see if there is an attached fee or change in interest rates (which there often is!). You can check here for more information: https://www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org/what-the-cares-act-means-for-repayment-of-federal-student-loans

And, just a reminder to avoid student loan debt relief companies and companies that enroll you in a forgiveness program. Some are scams, the fees are huge, and you can do this for free.  

Hi, Michelle. I know this isn't this week's topic, but here is something I don't understand. How can the stock market be on a "4 month winning streak" according to CNBC, and the GDP be down 32.9% for the second quarter of 2020? I'm not an economist, but shouldn't these two benchmarks be in sync?

You don't have to be an economist to know it should be in sync. I'm feeling you on this. My retirement account after dropping 30% in March is back up and then some -- a lot of some. I'm happy and sad at the same time because I know it makes no sense when so many people are out of work and may not have jobs to return to when this is all over. 

Read this from Post columnist Allan Sloan: Don’t think a great stock market means we’ve got a great economy

 

What are some good organizations to support that help people who fall behind in their rent?

Thank you for asking this question.  Its's such an important issue.  There are several categories of organizations that come to mind.  First, legal services nonprofits throughout the country are helping advise / represent people who have fallen behind.  Second, there are national charity groups like Catholic Charities and Salvation Army; locally, terrific organizations like Capital Area Asset Builders (CAAB) are providing public and privately funded program dollars to vulnerable DC residents for rent and other key help. 

Also (with tax dollars already collected), federal and state government offices are providing (usually one-time) rental assistance. 

Please help people find assistance because often they don't know who to call or that some help may be available. Also here are some columns that may help.

No money for rent or mortgage? Here’s what to do.

Rent, mortgage, car loans, utilities and child support. The other bills can wait.

Need cash now? Here are some options, with pros and cons.

Most universities have a fund-raising office which would happily provide the information you need.

Good point. Thanks. But also be sure to get it all in your will.

Contact the giving division of the alumni office. They will be absolutely delighted to help you figure out which method of leaving them money is easiest to accomplish. Yes, you might have to resist giving it to them now. They likely will ask. And you might get contacted in the future about increasing the amount. But, really, it is easy enough to say that you have decided what you are comfortable with. They will also want to have the gift on record and perhaps a way for them to be notified when you pass away. They have people who are absolutely experts at doing this easily and tastefully. They might even start inviting you to special tailgate parties or Christmas parties in your area.

Love this advice and also being firm about what you want to do and when. 

My parents, who are in their 80s, have not received their EIP money. They winter in Florida and did not return to New England due to the pandemic. The IRS website says their checks were mailed (though their SS is direct deposit) in May. The post office back home said they do not forward EIP checks. We cannot reach anyone at IRS national or local offices. Have tried our state's politicians, and they refer us to IRS/Treasury. Any advice?

So many people in a similar situation have reached out to me. It's very likely their check or prepaid debit card was mailed and is at the New England home. There's not much you can do at this point. The IRS is swamped and requesting the agency cancel the check won't really speed things up because they are so swamped with getting out refunds and more stimulus money. If possible, someone would just have to go get their mail. 

Does "financially impacted by the COVID-19 emergency (for example you delayed or missed payments on loans or bills)" mean that you missed payments or that you lost income in some way? I am not implying that people who have had no loss of income themselves are out deciding not to pay because of the special rules. I rent and I haven't done it. No reason to think anyone else has. BUT, it is a lot harder to prove an economic impact to yourself rather than prove that you didn't pay something on time. In addition, people who have kept their income may have had to step up to pay for relatives which could hurt their ability to pay everything on time. Do you count as "impacted" if you had to start paying for someone else's rent and food and how close a relative do they have to be? They might not have been dependent on you just a few months ago.

It's a broad protection. Anyone who has experienced financial hardship resulting directly or indirectly from Covid can file the statement. You can get help with this at https://www.tzedekdc.org/covid-19-creditThe law is designed to protect negative items on your credit report due to financial hardships resulting from Covid from being considered against you. The harm will generally only show up on your credit report if you delayed or missed payments. It doesn't change your liability to pay, and you can still be sued for the debts.  If you are a DC consumer missing your own payments because of hardships (including supporting dependents), then you should protect your credit reports in DC by filing the required personal statement. 

I had originally planned to buy a home this spring - but... covid... and decided to put it off until next spring. I've got a 800+ credit score, 0 DTI, and *currently* 53K -budgeted to grow to ~62k by next spring saved solely for that endeavor. My price targets are well within my safe range - but I'm going to be about 10-15k short of the magic 20%, once all costs are accounted for... I was thinking about either cutting my 401k contributions (currently 15% + 3% company match) OR... given the 2020 10% penalty waiver - just continuing contributions and taking a 10-15k withdrawal before end of year... My current 401k balance is age/horizon appropriate - 10-15k is still 10-15k, but it wouldn't significantly impact retirement planning. I know I could *also* do a 401k loan, but not a big fan of that (I don't like debt!)

If I were you, I would just wait to save up the rest of the money. First of, to take the money out of the 401(k) you need to have some covid-related issue (lost income, got sick, taking care of spouse who relative who was/is sick). Plus, you still have to pay taxes on the money and although it would be spread out over three years, it's still money you have to give up that could stay put and grow. And gain, technically I don't think by what you shared you fit the definition of being impacted by covid-19. You could pull back on retirement savings if you absolutely want to move forward sooner than you can save the money in cash. But, me? I would just wait to just save it.  

Michelle, I paid my daughter's college bill with a disbursement from a 529 plan. Now they are going online for the fall so they will not be charging room and board, and I will probably end up with a credit. What should I do to ensure that this will still count as a qualified disbursement? The best thing I can think of is to make a contribution equivalent to the refund to the 529 plan. Is there a better way to go?

I have to double check but I believe you missed the window to return the money. You had to do that by July 15. However, considering all that has happened you could make a case with the IRS that you should not be penalized for the non-education withdrawal when you had planned to use the refund to pay for room and board, which is not not available. 

If you do get hit with the 10% penalty it probably won't be much since it's only on the portion of the withdrawal attributed to the gains/returns, not the entire distribution which included your after-taxed contributions. 

I was in a similar position with my youngest. I wasn't sure she would be back on campus so just to be on the safe side, I returned the refunded money to her 529 plan thinking if she did got back I could just withdraw it again. She is going back but not knowing I just put the money back. 

Hi - thank you for all your practical advice over the years! I’d love to buy a house, but am not sure if it’s the best use of my money right now. I’m a 40 year old single parent and have a good job and no debt. I contribute 13% to retirement (+ 5% match), make monthly contributions to a 529, have enough in my emergency and life happens funds. Unfortunately, I didn’t start making substantial retirement contributions until about 3 years ago. After all my expenses, I put the rest of my paycheck into savings for a down payment. Should I be putting more into retirement instead? Or should I open a non-retirement investment account to save for a down payment rather than put money into a savings account that hovers around 1% interest? Thank you.

I know Michelle is going to answer this, but just a quick note to echo that Michelle is such a valued public advisor on personal finance issues.  We have clients and allies in DC who read her like the gospel! 

I would need to know so much more to give you a complete answer. So you have a pension? How much have you saved already for college for your child? Do you have any other debts? When do you plan on retiring? What happens if you can't work for another 20 to 25 years? How much exactly are you contributing to retirement?

My gut and experience says keep that pace with retirement and if you can truly max out at the $19,500 per year to catch up. But you still have about 20 to 25 years to retirement so a house now isn't unreasonable. See if you have extra money after the current pace of retirement and how long it would take you to save for the home with a hefty downpayment.

If you can do both, then go for the home. If not, I say retirement comes first.  

OP here. Sorry, I meant that I paid her Fall 2020 bill promptly in July, and now in August I am likely to get a refund. (I think the July 15 deadline you mentioned applied to disbursements for 2019-2020.)

Okay, got it. So you have a 60 day window to return the funds from the date of the refund to avoid the 10% penalty if you only just withdrew the money.  

Read this from savingforcollege.com: Can I Recontribute a Refund to My 529 Plan?

 

received a letter on June 4, signed boldly by the president, telling us we have a stimulus check coming...no sign of it yet. Is there a way to determine the status of this. They are discussing stimulus #2 and we haven't received #1.

So many stimulus glitches. And this is one. IRS says it's still getting out money so hopefully you are up next. 

I'm the 529 person. I forgot to say: Thanks for the answer! And thanks for all you do for us readers.

Aww. You are welcome. 

It's fine to pass a law telling lenders to not consider unpaid debts due to covid when making a loan decision, but how can that be enforced? If you lost your income because of covid, is the lender supposed to pretend you didn't? The lender doesn't have to lend money to anybody. The law sounds like a political gesture, not real protection.

The lender doesn't need to pretend not to see  your negative credit events.  Instead the law prohibits them from considering them in making decisions. As with any anti-discrimination provision, you can use evidence that the prohibited information was considered (for example, a comment by a landlord), and the violation is enforceable by a private lawsuit as well as by the DC Office of the Attorney General.  The law doesn't apply to federally regulated banks.  

Just wanted to let you know that your advice and techniques have made such a positive difference in my life. I've written before on several great milestones, but wanted to tell you that my husband and I, seniors, finally are moving past the simple hand drawn will (legal in FL) to actually getting an estate plan. Wouldn't have needed one a few years ago before we started following your advice. The second point though, I actually solicited estimates of fees from 3 lawyers and managed to save $500 from the highest estimate to the lowest. All 3 lawyers had the same approach. (We do have a lawyer, but he is a bit high-end, and we used him just for a civil matter or two a few years ago. His estimate was the highest priced, and since we knew his office well, we knew it was his paralegal who would do the real work.)

I just love your testimony. Thank you! I especially am grateful that with all your experience you trusted to listen to my advice. I'm honored. 

When is it worth it? I have 4% on my mortgage now and my mortgage company is offering 3%. I've heard that there are better deals but I haven't seen any. I think I am just going to pay extra payments instead of going through refinancing.

Do the math. Look at the breakeven point when factoring in closing costs, especially if you are not sure you may stay in the house for the next several years.

And really you can do your own refinance to reduce interest paid but dong exactly what you propose -- paying extra on the mortgage principal. That's what my husband and I do. Every month we pay down the principal with an extra payment. I'm hoping and praying to get rid of this monkey in the next two years! 

Hi Michelle, would you mind reposting your information about creating a death book that came up a few months ago? I have some time off from work next week for a staycation and want to tackle this. I tried googling and searching past chats but am having trouble finding it. I do have an emergency preparedness plan from a FEMA seminar I took 6 years ago and while I think it's the same info, I recall your death book list asked for more info.

I don't mind. I can't find all the good tips right now in the middle of this chat but please sign up for my weekly newsletter and I'll answer your question in full in the next one that comes out this coming Monday. I'll make it my Question of the Week. 

Hi Michelle, We're 40-somethings with 2 small kids, husband is self-employed at a 50-year-old family business, I'm a SAHM. We're 5 years into a 30 year mortgage at 3.7% (on which we owe 270k). We have about 500k invested in various forms (American Funds, 403b, some stocks), and funded 529s for our 2 preschool age kids. We currently have around 350k in liquid savings that we thought might be needed for my husband's business, but in the end is not. Would you pay off the remaining mortgage, and then continue to save (we are pretty thrifty in general, I'm not worried about either of us turning into big spenders without a mortgage payment each month)? Or would you refinance for a 15 year mortgage at 2.6% and invest the savings? Thanks for all your wise advice over the years!

If you're pretty sure the business is solid and won't succumb to a downsizing because of the pandemic, etc. I would so get rid of that monkey on your back. You've got the other pots going and still 20 to 25 years to retirement. Just imagine getting rid of the biggest expense in your budget? Sit with that. Think about the financial freedom even if the business doesn't take in as much. Then take those mortgage payments and build back up the savings, increase retirement savings and college fund. 

Investing isn't a guaranteed and dicey in the current market. Invest for retirement definitely (long term). Invest for the kids to go to college without having to take out loans (long term). But yes, big fat YES to not carrying a mortgage. That interest savings is a guaranteed of keeping money in your pocket. 

Kudos to your reader who wants to help fund a scholarship. I work with scholarship donors and recipients. Universities and donors are finally starting to recognize the fact that scholarships just for tuition only accomplish so much. I would like ask your reader to also consider a living expense stipend in addition to helping with tuition and fees. Having a little money for transportation, non-meal plans meals, extracurriculars, even buying a school hoodie, can really help reduce a low-income student's stress level and, more importantly, reduce reliance on loans.

Thank you for the suggestion. By the way, I also give to specific funds to help students who run out of money and who need money for meals. My husband have contributed to such efforts at University of Maryland College Park (where we graduated), UMBC (where our son goes now) and Towson (where our youngest is going). 

Can someone explain to me why employers have the right to pull a credit report prior to hiring you? I could see if the job requires handling large sums of money, or certain security-related positions, but wonder why it's become so widespread.

Thanks for this question.  Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and as bolstered by the state law in some states (DC included), employers are subject to limits on when they can pull the credit report and what they may consider. There is an-point February 2020 article by CNBC that speak in more detail to this issue

  https://www.cnbc.com/select/can-employers-see-your-credit-score/#:~:text=Thanks%20to%20the%20Fair%20Credit,pulling%20an%20applicant's%20credit%20history.&text=In%20some%20states%2C%20there%20are,credit%20information%20for%20employment%20decisions

The reasons employers most commonly give for this review is to protect consumers and the organization's employees.  

 

That said, and to your question, there is reason for concern about this.  First, contrary to popular belief, credit scores are not necessarily a proxy for a person's reliability.  Second, there are significant racial justice concerns, as the percentages of people with debt in collections (and therefore treated adversely on the credit report) are much higher for people of color in America generally and in DC specifically.  These are parts of why we and our local and national allies feel so strongly that credit report law reform is needed, especially in the wake of the financial crisis  caused by a global pandemic that is leading to individuals' financial stresses and cash flow shortages to pay their bills. 

By the way, employers are not entitled to your credit score. Just FYI. 

Hi Michelle, I hope you and your family are safe and healthy. Thank you for taking questions. My mother in law recently had to put her husband in a memory care facility. Memory care and mortgage payments will consume about 85 percent of their relatively safe military and teacher retirement pensions. My wife has offered to give her mom money to help with living expenses, which I do not mind. The problem is that her mother has the funds in savings to pay off her mortgage, and we are in essence subsidizing unnecessary interest payments. In addition, their retirement savings are in risky, stock-based mutual funds. My mother in law also believes that she will be penalized for withdrawing from her retirement account to pay off her mortgage. I was hoping that you could confirm (1) that my mother in law will not be penalized for withdrawing from her retirement accounts because she is 75 years old; (2) that a 75-year-old retiree should not have the bulk of her savings in stocks; and (3) that she should pay off her mortgage with the savings she has. I think if she sees it in writing from a Washington Post columnist, especially one who is a fellow African American woman, she might believe us that these are steps she needs to take… and soon. Thank you in advance for your help!

It's hard to get people to shake the fear of not having enough or dispel myths. But here goes.

(1) NO, at her age your mother in law will not be penalized for withdrawing from her retirement accounts. You are only penalize if you take a distribution before you turn 591/2. (2) While many experts say you still need some equities/stockst for growth you should be careful at 75 not to be too risky with money you need in the near future (5 years of less). (3) Pay off the mortgage with savings if you can if you feel you will need the retirement money for living expenses and there's not a lot there. However, if with pensions covering the majority of expenses and IF you have a substantial amount that you can afford to pull money from retirement than I'm not against using retirement money to pay off the mortgage. 

Thank you so much for joining me today. And loved the extra help from Ariel and Linda from Tzedek DC.

Take care and I'm right back her next week. Same time. Same day. 

In This Chat
Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, "The Color of Money," which appears in The Post on Wednesday and Sunday. Her award-winning column is also carried in more than 120 newspapers. In her spare time, Singletary is the director of a ministry she founded at her church, in which women and men volunteer to mentor others who are having financial challenges.

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Color of Money Q&A Archive
Linda Coe
Linda Coe is a staff attorney at Tzedek DC. She works on D.C. and federal policy matters affecting borrowers. Coe also represents clients on debt matters in D.C. Superior Court and counsels clients on debt management and debt collection issues.
Ariel Levinson-Waldman
Ariel Levinson-Waldman is president and director-counsel for Tzedek DC, an independent public interest center at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. Tzedek DC’s mission is to safeguard the rights and interests of low-income DC residents facing debt-related problems. The center provides free legal help to DC households facing debt collection, consumer, or credit problem.
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