The D.C. Council on Friday began to imagine what an end to the long list of pandemic-era aid programs may look like in a city where evictions have been halted, utilities shut-offs have been blocked, and mortgage foreclosures and other legal proceedings have been put on pause for more than a year.
In an hours-long meeting before the council, at which more than 100 people signed up to testify, lawmakers weighed the needs of a wide range of residents: business owners and employees, renters and landlords, parents and workers, domestic violence and fraud victims, homeowners and the homeless, among others.
The committee, co-chaired by council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), was convened with the mandate of building an “off-ramp” with a focus on equity. The question of how to prioritize and best reach some of the District’s poorest and hardest-hit residents loomed large over the event, which at times seemed to present more questions than solutions.
The committee will ultimately draft a report addressing many of the issues raised at Friday’s hearing and proposing ways to guide the District in scaling back pandemic safety nets while also instituting changes meant to outlive the coronavirus recovery.
“We can’t avert a public health crisis only to run headfirst into a housing crisis that will affect people and their families for generations to come,” Gray said to open the hearing. “While covid-19 has affected everybody, it has not affected everybody equally.”
Top of mind for many was a plan proposed by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) this week to end the city’s ban on eviction filings for nonpayment of rent — a proposal the council ultimately backed away from — and a looming deadline for distributing millions of federal dollars in rental assistance that landlords and tenants described as a lifeline for those who have suffered financially over the past 15 months.
The District must use about $130 million in federal rent relief funds by September or risk having to return the money.
The rental assistance program, Stay D.C., was derided by tenant advocates, management companies and landlord advocates alike for being cumbersome, confusing and excessively time-consuming.
Out of the thousands of applications the District has gotten for the Stay D.C. aid, just 500 tenants have received assistance, Allen said.
Renters “want to apply . . . they don’t need a stick. They need an accessible program,” said Lori Leibowitz, an attorney from the Neighborhood Legal Services Program. “We spend hours helping people fill out this application. The ledgers are hard to read for nonlawyers. They’re hard to read for lawyers, even. Many of our clients don’t have computers and can only apply on their phones, and the website is not mobile friendly.”
Tenants rights advocates warned of a “tsunami of evictions” that would befall the District should the eviction moratorium be lifted without first ensuring that aid programs were working and being used by tenants and landlords. They asked that evictions be forestalled until 2022 to allow residents to make more robust economic recoveries.
“Eviction is a racial-justice issue in our city, and lifting the moratorium . . . would have devastating effects for D.C. residents,” said professor Eva Rosen, of Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
Mendelson’s plan was based on the idea that resuming eviction filings would motivate tenants who might be hesitant to apply for rent relief. Councilwoman Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) described this proposal as “the eviction hammer.” Council members decided to wait to make any changes to the District’s eviction moratorium, which bans both eviction filings and physical evictions for nonpayment of rent until 60 days after the end of the public health emergency.
Advocates for landlords, however, argued that easing the moratorium would give renters a much-needed push to apply.
“Tenants are not applying for this program. They’re not cooperating, they’re not responding to landlords,” said Richard Bianco, the general counsel for the Small Multifamily Owners Association. “The fact remains that people, in general, won’t do something until they absolutely have to, even if it is in their best interest.”
Peter Bonnell of Urban Investment Partners, a management firm that oversees about 3,000 apartments, cited an example from his own portfolio, saying that in a building of 300 units, nine people have refused to participate in the Stay D.C. program, despite being told by the company that it would cover any back rent owed. Bonnell asked the council to create incentives to encourage tenants to cooperate and to increase public awareness about what Stay D.C. does — and does not — do.
Katalin Peter, vice president of government affairs for the D.C. Association of Realtors, suggested that there may be fear among tenants and asked the council to make clear to renters through an aggressive public information campaign that there would be no negative consequences — on their credit, housing record or immigration status — for applying for federal rental assistance.
Some council members discussed providing renters a cash incentive to apply. Another idea was easing the process by eliminating the need for a separate tenant application and instead allowing landlords to provide documentation and tenants to merely sign off on the information being correct.
“Maybe they think there will be a gotcha moment,” Peter said. “I feel like there must be some component of fear that’s precluding it.”
Other witnesses suggested diversion programs that would force landlords and tenants to exhaust any available aid before eviction proceedings were allowed to go forward.
Questions were raised throughout the hearing over how long certain protections — from debt collectors, mortgage brokers, utility providers and more — would remain in place after the expiration of the District’s state of emergency, which the council has extended through late July.
The emergency designation allows the city to receive certain funding from the federal government and empowers the mayor to enact pandemic restrictions.
Council members appeared to agree to form a working group to tackle problems plaguing the Stay D.C. program and streamline paths to rental assistance for tenants and landlords alike.
The first meeting of this working group will take place next week.