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D.C. Council freezes rent hikes but omits undocumented immigrants from covid-19 relief bill

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The D.C. Council on Tuesday passed sweeping coronavirus relief legislation that freezes rent increases and makes it easier for inmates to win early release.

City leaders also promised to offer assistance to undocumented residents, who do not qualify for unemployment insurance or stimulus checks, after dropping provisions meant to help them.

The council unanimously passed the emergency measures during the body’s first virtual legislative session, with lawmakers calling in from home using Zoom, a teleconferencing program.

“We are dealing with an uncertain future,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said. “We’ve shut down our economy, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and there are a lot of folks in the community looking for different ways we can help now and minimize what the adverse impacts are.”

Schools, nonessential businesses and parks are closed in the District through the end of the month and possibly longer, with the city projecting an early summer peak in covid-19 hospitalizations.

The latest relief legislation, which will take effect immediately when Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) signs it, allows the mayor to extend the public health emergency and the accompanying restrictions through mid-June if necessary.

It also includes measures to protect residents from further financial strain as jobless claims soar, many relating to housing.

Landlords in both rent-controlled and market-rate buildings cannot increase rents while the public health emergency is in effect. And tenants who gave notice to vacate their units can stay until the mayor lifts the emergency declaration.

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Local mortgage lenders must also allow borrowers to defer mortgage payments for 90 days without late fees if they can demonstrate financial hardship because of covid-19. The provision applies to locally regulated lenders, which does not include major national banks.

Residential tenants can request rent deferrals if their landlord is able to defer their mortgage, and commercial tenants, such as restaurants that have shut down, must see reduced or deferred rents.

“If you can’t pay your rent, then we want you to be able to benefit as well,” council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said.

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Officials also added cable television, Internet and phone service to the utilities that can’t be shut off. A late amendment requested by the mayor’s office would allow Internet providers to shift customers to a lower-tier plan for nonpayment, as long as basic service is maintained.

The District had already halted evictions and power shut-offs under earlier relief legislation.

The bill also relaxes graduation eligibility rules for high school seniors, removing requirements for a set time of classroom instruction and 100 hours of community service.

“This legislation ensures that our high school students’ futures are not put on hold because of the ongoing public health emergency,” said David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee.

D.C. residents incarcerated at the jail and at federal prisons would also have more options for early release under the legislation, provided that officials find that the release would not endanger public safety.

The bill expands “good time” credits for those incarcerated for offenses before 2000 and the criteria for allowing prisoners to request an early “compassionate” release. Inmates older than 60 or who have terminal illnesses or chronic medical conditions that place them at a greater risk of succumbing to covid-19 may file motions for early release.

“The failure to contain the virus on the inside for whatever reason will accelerate its proliferation on the outside,” said Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee.

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Activists and lawmakers raised an uproar after Bowser and Mendelson dropped provisions to provide direct cash assistance and a separate unemployment insurance program for immigrants, citing concerns over costs.

“Those discussions are ongoing, looking at alternatives for how we can find dollars and provide some assistance to undocumented workers, so that issue is not being ignored,” Mendelson said.

Undocumented immigrants and workers who rely on nontraditional streams of income, including street vending, housekeeping, babysitting and other jobs that pay in cash, may struggle to meet unemployment requirements such as providing pay stubs or a social security number, activists said.

Already, organizations like Mary’s Center, a health clinic, and Many Languages One Voice, which works with immigrant communities, have received countless pleas for help from D.C. residents who worry that they will not be able to pay rent or feed their families in coming weeks.

“We don’t have money to pay for the rent or lights or gas,” Reina Sosa, a street vendor who earns her living selling mangoes, watermelon and taquitos near the Columbia Heights Metro station, said in Spanish.

She and other vendors have shut down their operations because of the public health crisis and orders from the D.C. government to close all nonessential businesses.

Other municipalities in the region have designated a relief fund for workers in the cash economy. Earlier this month, Montgomery County put aside $5 million for direct relief to “residents facing hardship” in a relief bill passed by the county council.

D.C. activists have called on the District to do the same — $5 million for families in need.

“It would be a lifeline for people who are being locked out of the unemployment system,” said Elizabeth Falcon, the executive director of D.C. Jobs With Justice, a workers’ rights organization.

Following the surprise removal of the cash-assistance provision from the council’s legislation last week, D.C. Jobs With Justice organized a letter-writing campaign demanding that the provision be reinstated. As of Tuesday’s vote, more than 830 letters had been sent.

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“These ‘excluded workers’ include tens of thousands of immigrant families and other workers,” the letter states. “These people make D.C. work, but their work is sometimes invisible. They care for children and grandparents so others can go out of the home to work, they clean hotel rooms to make our hospitality sector strong, they power our new development by constructing our buildings, they keep our offices clean overnight, they wash dishes and keep bars stocked so we can enjoy our cocktails and D.C.’s fine dining.”

Other provisions in the D.C. emergency legislation prohibit debt collectors from contacting or initiating actions against debtors until 60 days after the public health emergency ends and requires the D.C. Board of Elections to mail absentee ballot applications and return envelopes with prepaid postage to all voters.

The legislation also authorizes the short-term borrowing of up to $500 million to manage the city’s cash flow while sales tax revenue is down and reserves are being tapped.

Before the final vote, Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) urged his colleagues not to shirk their oversight duty during the emergency.

“We can’t be caught flat-footed after the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of many, many months,” White said.

Some provisions also acknowledge the grim reality of a rising covid-19 death toll.

Funeral home operators must post a “funeral bill of rights” and casket pricing on premises.

When drafting wills, people will no longer need a witness to sign the document in person.

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