The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. has enough cash on hand to help people facing eviction

A protest in April 2021 over D.C.'s handling of federal rent relief. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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Katharine Landfield is a social worker.

D.C. has an estimated and eye-popping $576 million surplus from fiscal 2021, the third year in a row of annual surpluses of more than $500 million.

On the face of it, this is great news and shows the financial health of the city, even during the pandemic. My own experience, and that of most of my neighbors in our comfortable corner of upper Northwest, is very much that of the robust economy and strong financial position. Renters, working-class residents and housing advocates, however, have been sounding alarm bells for months. All is not well, at all.

As of the end of January, about 40,000 adult renters in the city were behind on their rent and might be facing the threat of eviction. Even by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) calculations, we need $187 million more for emergency rent and utility assistance. Moreover, our Rapid Rehousing program, designed to house families experiencing homelessness, will end aid to 913 families starting in March, and many of them will surely be added to the swelling numbers of the unhoused.

What is going on here? The city has more than half a billion dollars burning a hole in its pocket but is not meeting the basic needs of its most vulnerable residents. This approach is wrongheaded, causes traumatic suffering and weakens the social fabric of our city. City leaders can ask us to be understanding of their budget decisions, but, with surpluses such as these, we rightfully feel angry and disappointed in their choices.

For less than $200 million, the mayor could buffer these households from the cascade of damage to health, stability and security that eviction and homelessness entail. Our Black and Brown neighbors with low incomes — many of them the celebrated “essential workers” of the pandemic and the engine of D.C.’s economy — have been suffering acutely for almost two years now, as White neighbors with far greater resources have recovered and even grown their wealth.

Bowser needs to address critical and time-sensitive rent and utility needs with all haste, by devoting a portion of the surplus to prevent evictions and utility cutoffs. Although D.C. did not receive the $187 million the mayor requested from the federal government for those purposes, she can now use surplus funds to refill the overstretched Emergency Rental Assistance Program and provide urgent utility and Internet assistance. She also can boost funding to the Rapid Rehousing program to ensure stability for those families. As we emerge from the pandemic, with our massive budget surplus, not a single resident should be facing eviction or homelessness because of economic hardship.

Why act now? Relief cannot wait for the regular budget process. By later this spring, potentially tens of thousands of renters will be in process for eviction, with the average D.C. household facing an eviction filing for owing less than the cost of a month of the area median’s rent.

If $1.5 billion in surpluses over the past three years tells us anything, it is that we must be less conservative in our budgeting and attend to human needs as a higher priority. Many of these households would not be in dire straits now if we had allocated funds more generously to critical pandemic assistance through the normal budgeting process. We have been budgeting with an eye toward saving when we needed to be addressing the actual level of need with the resources we clearly have.

Though recent stock market jitters and inflation might rattle our collective nerves, wealth accumulation at the top has boomed during the pandemic. It is still essential that the mayor, the D.C. Council and all of us remember that preventing homelessness and eviction is the right course and costs but a fraction of what it will to address the consequences later. The costs can be measured in dollars, wasted human potential and detrimental effects on long-term health, learning and productivity.

Bowser should immediately tap the surplus to help avert an eviction crisis. She and the D.C. Council must not take the “cautious, let’s see” approach to budgeting that has prioritized wealth over community wellness. We have literally made savings more important than well-being. We must make a different choice going forward.