The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. doles out 70 percent of federal rent relief ahead of September use-it-or-lose-it deadline

Groups demonstrated in front of the condo building of D.C. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio in April, and demanded that the Bowser administration stop standing in the way of money that Congress has allocated for tenants in the District. Officials announced Friday that the city doled out nearly $143 million of its federal rent-assistance funding. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

D.C. officials announced Friday that the city has doled out nearly $143 million — or 70 percent — of the $200 million in federal money it received to help residents cover overdue rent and utilities.

The news came just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court sided with landlords who sought to overturn the Biden administration’s ban on evictions for much of the country. Though D.C. has its own eviction moratorium — which is not set to expire until next month — Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio said over the past couple of weeks, the number of applications has spiked as the reality that many of the pandemic-era protections are going away has set in. Last week alone, D.C. received 2,500 applications from tenants — more than double the week before, Falcicchio said.

“People are coming to the realization that at some point the eviction moratorium will end,” Falcicchio said this week. “That has gotten people focused to take advantage of this resource.”

More than 15,000 residents have been given emergency rental assistance through the STAY DC program, according to the mayor’s office, with an average award of just over $6,000 going to each tenant.

D.C. officials from several city agencies have estimated that as many as 70,000 households may need rental assistance due to financial hardship suffered amid the ongoing pandemic.

Under STAY DC, residents can apply for as much as a year’s worth of back rent and three months of future rent. Residents can also apply for help paying utility bills. Households that received money to cover utility costs were given an average of roughly $935 for water, $850 for electricity and $470 for gas, officials said.

Ward 8 has received the majority of the aid, according to numbers provided by the District, with about 26 percent of payouts going to residents there. About 17 percent has been granted to residents in Ward 7 and about 13 percent to Washingtonians who live in Ward 5.

If the District had not spent more than 65 percent of the money provided by the U.S. Treasury by the end of September, the federal government may have asked for some portion of it back to redistribute to other areas of the country where the need appeared to be greater.

Meeting that benchmark with more than a month to go means D.C. will avoid having to return any remaining funds and could become eligible for more federal rental assistance in the future, officials said. It also underscores the effectiveness of strategies D.C. officials used to reach residents and help them apply for financial aid.

In early July, the District announced that it had only doled out about a fifth of its $200 million allotment. Volunteers and advocates, who work with tenants to fill out complicated application forms detailing financial hardship and the impact of the pandemic on their household, had criticized the D.C. government’s efforts to reach renters as burdensome and ineffective. In some cases, the process required tenants to call a hotline during business hours or proactively contact a government agency to get help.

Tenants in D.C. are struggling to secure rent relief. Advocates say the application process is to blame.

Additionally, the online STAY DC application was buggy and complicated, critics said, and not as accessible for non-English speakers. It was also taking more than a month for renters to get the money they were awarded.

Volunteers, tenant rights advocates and some D.C. lawmakers, including D.C. Councilwoman Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), spent weeks pushing the city to hold more in-person events to help walk tenants through the application and its documentation requirements that even housing attorneys have described as complicated.

“We need to meet people where they are and talk with them face to face,” Lewis George said last month.

Falcicchio said D.C. made improvements to its outreach and assistance strategies after hearing community feedback and seeing what seemed most effective at getting tenants to complete applications.

Late last month, the District hosted its first STAY DC fair in Ward 8 in an effort to meet renters in person and help them work through the online application with the assistance of a city worker. The fair was such a success, Falcicchio said, that D.C. has continued to host in-person events.

A new calendar on the STAY DC website lists pop-up events around the city where residents can receive in-person assistance with their applications. The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development’s office in Southeast Washington and the Mayor’s Office of Latino Affairs on 14th St. NW have also dedicated staffers to assisting renters who make appointments or simply show up during business hours. At the office for Latino Affairs, bilingual support is available for Spanish speakers.

“Achieving this milestone, a month ahead of schedule is not an accident,” Polly Donaldson, the director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said in an email statement. “Our aggressive outreach and communication strategy helped get people in the door, and efficient administration of the program got money out.”

The District has also stepped up its communication strategy, Falcicchio said. Applicants whose forms languish unfinished for weeks in the online portal can now expect to receive a call from a D.C. official who will ask for their missing documents and offer recommendations for how to complete the process.

The turnaround time for applicants to actually receive the aid after being approved has also been reduced, Falcicchio said, though he did not specify what the turnaround time was as of this week.

Another issue advocates had identified in recent months was the challenge of providing documentation for tenants who may not have any.

Applicants who work in what is known as the informal economy — domestic workers, child care providers and street vendors, among others — may not have documented proof of income, advocates said, even though many of these workers were hit hard by the pandemic and were forced to cut back hours or — in some cases — stop working altogether.

Renters who live in sublet apartments and those with informal rental arrangements — which is common particularly among immigrant communities — similarly may not have documentation to show for their tenancy, advocates said.

To complete their application, tenants in these situations must instead self-attest, but doing so was complicated and required an external form. Falcicchio said the online application was recently updated to incorporate a self-attestation form already embedded in the portal — eliminating the extra steps that it would otherwise take for tenants to fill out an additional document and upload it to the STAY DC system.

“We’ve become a little more agile and we’ve taken time to triage some of the problems we were seeing with tenant applications to make sure everyone is caught up,” Falcicchio said. “It’s really important that we get all those applications in because, at some point, this resource might run out.”