As coronavirus pandemic restrictions begin to lift, the D.C. Council is considering making it easier to resume evictions too — a suggestion that has caused an outcry among some legislators and advocates, and also has raised concerns among landlords.
Now, with more and more of the population vaccinated against the coronavirus and other activities permitted to resume, the D.C. Council faces a contentious vote Tuesday about how to slowly return to being a city where people can legally be evicted.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has proposed allowing landlords to once again file eviction complaints for nonpayment of rent beginning July 1, if the landlord has applied for rent relief on the tenant’s behalf but the tenant still has not paid more than 60 days later. Tenants also can apply for a 15-day extension to obtain rent relief.
Mendelson’s proposal is aimed at encouraging tenants and landlords to use the city’s new rent relief program, STAY DC. The program, which can pay tenants’ back rent, is funded by up to $352 million in federal pandemic recovery grants and was set to begin disbursing money Monday, according to Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio.
But the city must spend $65 million on the program by September or risk losing some of the grant funds, Falcicchio said.
“The effect will be to increase utilization of the federal money — much of which will be taken back by the federal government if not obligated over the next four months,” Mendelson wrote to fellow council members. “And, more importantly, the low income households will come out of the pandemic with little or no debt to their landlords and the utility companies.”
Some landlords have been frustrated for months that their tenants have little incentive to pay rent when they know they can’t be evicted under the District’s state of emergency rules, and thus, in some landlords’ views, are slow to participate in programs that would help them pay what they owe.
But tenant advocacy groups and some legislators say that the new program is not yet capable of handling the huge number of people who need assistance, and starting evictions soon could destabilize thousands.
The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia wrote Monday that evictions should not be allowed until the STAY DC grant process is well underway. Right now, more than 20,000 people have at least started the application for assistance but almost none have yet received funds.
“Evictions for nonpayment of rent should not restart until rental assistance programs are working,” wrote Beth Mellen, an attorney at the organization. “Without rental assistance in place for these families, restarting the eviction process risks displacing thousands of Black and Latinx families.”
Eighty percent of the 18,000 D.C. households behind on their rent have a Black head of household, while only 5 percent have a White head of household, according to the Legal Aid Society.
The organization also noted that landlords stand to make more money if their tenants stay and receive the grants necessary to pay the rent they owe than if they are evicted without paying.
Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) tweeted Friday that STAY DC, which opened applications for tenants and landlords weeks ago, is “inaccessible, slow, and still unknown to the vast majority of tenants in DC.”
“We are still in a pandemic. A city that can’t deliver unemployment checks or distribute rent relief should not be bringing back evictions,” she wrote, referring to problems that D.C. has recently experienced in administering other safety-net programs.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) echoed Lewis George, noting that the council has a hearing scheduled Friday — three days after the eviction vote — on ending safety net protections put in place during the pandemic. “Let’s hear from experts & the public before voting on this!” she tweeted.
Landlords have concerns about the STAY DC program too: In a letter last week, 17 landlords who manage more than 36,000 housing units in the District called the distribution of funds so far “anemic,” with many saying that they and their tenants had submitted dozens or hundreds of applications yet had not received any money so far.
They also wrote that the city had not answered some of their questions about how the program works, including their concerns that if they participate in the program they will be forced to forgive back rent — something that the federal government does not require.
Falcicchio told council members at a meeting last week that the city is working to improve the STAY DC program, and he urged them to vote for the modified eviction plan.
The city is improving the program’s website so that it will put “more of the onus onto the housing providers to provide the documents needed” rather than on the tenants, he said.
“We’re pressing on getting the first payments out. We’re pressing on incorporating a little bit more flexibility in the application . . . We’re also continuing to promote the program,” he said.
The legislation that the council will consider Tuesday is part of a broader bill to extend the public health emergency, which was declared March 11, 2020 and is set to end on Thursday.
The bill as Mendelson has proposed it would extend the emergency until July 25, but would modify its conditions in several ways — including narrowing the prohibition on utility shut-offs from all D.C. households to only low-income residents. An earlier attempt by Mendelson to narrow the conditions of the broad utility shut-off moratorium failed to make it through the legislative process after public outcry.
Kyle Swenson contributed to this report.