The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Sheets bearing messages of protest hang from windows at an apartment building in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood in October. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Outside an apartment building in Northwest Washington, volunteers propped their laptops open and began to help tenants apply for STAY DC, an emergency rent relief program that has been heralded as a lifeline for those who have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic.

They helped elderly tenants create email addresses and demonstrated how to photograph documents with a phone camera so the papers could be uploaded to the portal. They translated convoluted questions about the pandemic’s impact into Spanish and Amharic and tried to help create documentation for tenants who did not have a traditional 9-to-5 job or whose lease agreements were informal.

The group, which last convened in late June, worked for hours helping tenants, one by one, application by painstaking application.

When the clinic ended, volunteers said, 25 more people than they had time to meet with had signed up for help. They would have to return another day.

As the District hustles to meet an end-of-September, use-it-or-lose-it deadline to distribute tens of millions in federal emergency rent relief, volunteer- and nonprofit-led efforts have sought to plug holes in a government response that critics have described as reactive and impersonal. To date, the city has given out less than a fifth of the $200 million Congress awarded the District in December, according to D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, John Falcicchio.

The District has acknowledged that the application has been buggy and the lengthy turnaround time for distributing the funds is problematic, but the city maintains that officials have made improvements to the process in response to community feedback.

As the days tick by, lawmakers have brainstormed ways to incentivize tenants or compel them to register for the program.

To instill a sense of urgency in renters, Falcicchio said, the District will soon announce a soft deadline of Aug. 15.

Renters who apply after that date will still be considered for rent and utilities reimbursements, Falcicchio said, but under U.S. Treasury Department rules, if the District doesn’t dole out $130 million by Sept. 30, it may not be allowed to keep what is left of its $200 million allotment.

City officials are also offering a cash bonus to applicants, as D.C. did to encourage the hesitant to sign up for coronavirus vaccination, and threatening to restart processing evictions in D.C. courts, which have been suspended for more than a year.

But according to several District officials, lawyers and advocates, the problems with the District’s program to distribute the federal aid known as STAY DC (Stronger Together by Assisting You) go far beyond a lack of public awareness or interest. The application itself may be crippling the process.

For tenants who are elderly, face technological barriers, or are disabled, illiterate or whose primary language is not English, the application is often impossible to navigate without help — and there isn’t enough help to go around, say housing advocates and D.C. Council staffers.

“It’s generally hard for poor people to access the benefits they’re entitled to, but we did not know it would be this difficult,” said Allison Hrabar, a tenants advocate who has helped train and organize volunteers. “The program is supposed to be for anyone who was financially impacted or lost income during covid, which I think covers most people. But the reality is, it’s so much more complicated than losing a job. Maybe your hours got cut. Maybe you’re paying more to support family members. Maybe you just weren’t able to sell food on the street like you have been your whole life.”

D.C. faces challenges similar to those in other jurisdictions around the country and the region that have struggled to get funds out the door in the face of a looming deadline and unprecedented need.

With evictions looming, hundreds of millions in rental aid around the D.C. area remain unspent

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 40 million renters in the United States are at risk of eviction. Under the STAY DC program, which began accepting applications in April, tenants who are approved can receive money to cover outstanding rent and utility bills dating back to April 1, 2020, and three months of future rent. The program is meant to help families settle debts, pay landlords what they’re owed and, ultimately, avoid a crisis when the District’s moratorium on eviction proceedings expires later this year.

As of last week, the program had distributed $34 million in rent checks to D.C. residents and $1.5 million in utilities payments, according to Falcicchio.

Lag times in processing the applications and getting money to tenants have also been a problem.

As of this past week, Falcicchio said, the turnaround time was about 45 days. His office — which the deputy mayor added has been approving around 1,000 applications a week — has been working to reduce processing time to 30 days.

But tenants rights advocates say that’s still not fast enough.

“People who are in the process of applying are falling two more months behind on rent from when they may start the application to when they’re actually getting any money,” said Tamira Benitez, a former tenants advocate and the constituent services coordinator for D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4). “By the time the money does come in, the tenant may be further behind than they were when they applied for relief.”

Other issues that have stymied tenant applicants include the requirement that documents be uploaded one page at a time, a step made more arduous and time-consuming by lengthy lease agreements, for example.

Others pointed to issues of accessibility.

Though the application is available in Spanish, Amharic, French, Korean, Mandarin and Vietnamese, multilingual volunteers have said the translations have been confusingly worded and, at times, may make it harder for tenants to understand what is required.

Falcicchio said that after the application went live in April, the District relied on Google Translate to provide the non-English translations for several weeks. The government has since changed its system and funded “hard translations” of the site and application.

STAY DC’s rigorous documentation requirements have also proved to be a challenge for some tenants.

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.

Those who live in a sublet apartment and tenants with informal rental arrangements, common particularly among immigrant communities, may not have a traditional lease agreement to show for their tenancy, volunteers said.

One tenant, Rosa, who lives at the Meridian Heights apartment building in Columbia Heights, lost her job in the service industry as the pandemic ravaged the D.C. region. Her husband of 20 years, who had continued to work through the public health emergency, contracted the coronavirus and died.

Because Rosa was not listed on the lease, advocates said, they struggled to fill out her STAY DC application and prove residency.

“She didn’t have proof of income, she didn’t have a lease with her name on it, the proof she was affected by covid is that her husband died, but man, it’s really hard to fit her situation onto that form,” said Katherine Richardson, an organizer with Stomp Out Slumlords, an anti-eviction and tenants rights organization that has organized several volunteer-led application drives.

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For those without pay stubs, a formal lease agreement or documented proof of pandemic-related hardships, the STAY DC form allows applicants to self-attest. But, the application notes, doing so may further delay processing times and, according to Falcicchio’s office, the District will provide only three months of payment for those who do not submit official documentation — a Treasury Department requirement, D.C. officials said.

Tenants who need more than that to settle their outstanding debts would have to restart the process for the subsequent three months, Hrabar said.

Lewis George, the Ward 4 council member, who has been an outspoken critic of the STAY DC application process since its launch, has worked directly with several tenants to get them registered for the program. Late last month, she and her staff joined volunteers from the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) at a Ward 4 apartment building to sign up residents.

She watched as the sheet filled with names of those in need of help. She saw tenants running up and down from their homes to fetch documents as volunteers hunched over laptops, spending an hour or more on a single application.

“We need to meet people where they are and talk with them face to face,” she said. “I’m just not seeing that approach from the city.”

Some landlords and property managers who testified at a D.C. Council hearing in May said they had directed their own staff members to sit down with residents and get them signed up for the program. Nearly all said it was time-consuming and slow going, with each application taking one to two hours to complete.

These ad hoc application help sessions have filled a need that the District has failed to address, volunteers and tenants advocates said. And though organizations like Stomp Out Slumlords and the DSA have continued to train more people to guide tenants through the application, organizers said they don’t have the infrastructure or capacity to fully address the need that exists in the District.

D.C. Council considers how to lift pandemic emergency programs while staving off ‘tsunami’ of evictions

“No one I know has been able to fill this out on their own,” Richardson said. “People tell us that they have tried, but the form itself is so confusing. There are a lot of minor things that can get you stuck, and then you can’t advance.”

The D.C. government has set up a call center to field questions from residents and landlords and, as of June, has been connecting renters in need of more hands-on assistance with nonprofits whose staff can meet with them in person and guide them through the process.

But Lewis George said a community-fair model still relies on tenants to proactively reach out to a call center during its hours of operation — weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — when many tenants who work are unable to do so.

“If you sent any five STAY DC staff to set up stations at apartment buildings in each ward, you wouldn’t need to do all these other things,” she said. “It’s one thing to hand someone a flier or tell them, ‘Here’s the number to call,’ and it’s another thing entirely to sit down with them and go through this application.”

Falcicchio’s office is coordinating a STAY DC fair in Ward 8 at the end of the month in hopes that tenants will be able to come get the help they need in person — though they will need to collect and bring all the required documentation, the deputy mayor said.

“We want to experiment with something like a fair and see if it’s an effective way to reach people,” Falcicchio said, noting that his office will probably hold one on a weekend and another on a weeknight. “The only way we’re going to utilize this federal resource and make our residents whole and put them on better ground as we come out of this pandemic is to work together.”