The D.C. Council adopted a plan on Tuesday to gradually put an end to a slew of protections that have shielded residents during the coronavirus pandemic, including prohibitions that kept landlords from raising rents and evicting tenants.
The measure drew criticism both from tenant advocates who said it ends much-needed safeguards too soon and from landlords who said they need the evictions process to move faster.
The legislation establishes a plan for evictions to resume in stages. Landlords will be allowed to file right away to evict tenants who have caused significant damage to their buildings. A much larger number of evictions, those filed against any tenants who have fallen more than $600 behind on rent, can be filed in court beginning Oct. 12. But the law imposes a new requirement that landlords apply for Stay DC — the massive rent relief program funded by $350 million in federal grants — on behalf of tenants at least 60 days before moving to evict them.
The hope, council members said, is that most tenants will receive money from the program to cover what they owe and will avoid eviction.
“What we’re doing is trying to create more of a soft landing,” Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Monday.
The measure allows eviction filings for all causes, such as those for tenants who are paying their rent but have violated terms in their lease, to resume at the start of the new year. Mendelson said that the staggered calendar is necessary to prevent the city’s courts from being deluged with cases at once.
But landlords were frustrated that it could be nearly six additional months before they can move to evict.
“This is a gross and pervasive taking of the civil and property rights of every D.C. housing provider,” Dean Hunter, the chief executive of the landlord group Small Multifamily Owners Association, said in an interview. “We will examine all of our options including legal challenges. We’re going to continue to fight to access the courts. We lost today, but we will not stop fighting to gain access to the courts to exercise our rights.”
The bill also prohibits landlords from raising tenants’ rent for the rest of this year.
Several nonprofit organizations sent the council a letter on behalf of tenants, arguing that the bill would allow evictions to resume too quickly. The advocates suggested that no evictions should start earlier than December. “With unemployment still at high levels and vaccination still underway, especially for Black and Brown residents, now is not the time to end public health protections that have saved lives,” they wrote.
Mendelson described the measure as a sound compromise. “If the goal is to eliminate any more evictions for the rest of time, that’s not going to happen,” he said. “But if the goal is to get people to reduce their debt and pay their bills with the federal assistance, this does a better job of it than anything else I’ve seen.”
Under the legislation, utility companies will again be allowed to shut off gas, water or electricity starting in October at the homes of customers who have fallen behind on their bills during the pandemic. But the measure also requires companies to keep utilities running for an additional 90 days at the home of any customer who owes less than $600 or who receives public benefits including Medicaid, welfare, food stamps or rental assistance from the city’s rent relief program. It also says companies must keep providing utilities to any customer who sets up a payment plan and pays at least $10 a month.
The council also agreed Tuesday that it would no longer extend Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s authority to declare a public health emergency past July 25.
However, the council extended Bowser’s power to declare an ongoing state of emergency that is not a health emergency. The change in status means that Bowser can no longer command actions from private businesses in the name of public health — such as requiring masks or social distancing in stores — but the city can continue to request federal emergency funds to cover expenses including virus testing and vaccine clinics.
Kyle Swenson contributed to this report.