DC Council says no to pressuring tenants to apply for rental assistance by threatening eviction

A photo of The Camden Roosevelt Apartments on 16th Street NW in DC

Photo courtesy of user ncindc via Flickr.

This article was first published by DCist on May 18.

The D.C. Council voted down a controversial measure last week that would have allowed landlords to resume sending eviction notices during the pandemic, opting instead to revisit the proposal at a later date.

During two meetings on May 18, several councilmembers expressed reservations about an amendment from Chairman Phil Mendelson that would have provided an exception to the strict moratorium put in place early in the COVID-19 crisis. Under the moratorium, landlords cannot evict tenants for nonpayment during the health emergency and 60 days afterward.

But under an amendment he offered as part of a bill extending the public health emergency until July 25, eviction filings could have resumed July 1, with the goal of encouraging more renters to take advantage of STAY D.C., the city’s new federally funded rent assistance program. Landlords would have been able to file for an eviction only if they’d applied for federal assistance on the tenant’s behalf in the previous 60 days, informed the tenant about the availability of rent relief, and served sufficient written notice. Renters could request a 15-day extension if they weren’t able to access funds due to reasons beyond their control. A similar law has been in effect in Virginia since Jan. 1.

Mendelson also called to undo the city’s ban on utility shut-offs, another effort to compel residents to pay what they owe. Residents receiving certain public benefits — such as Medicaid, unemployment, rent or utility assistance, SNAP, and TANF — would have continued to be protected.

D.C.’s eviction moratorium applies to all tenants by default. This is not the case for the federal moratorium. Tenants intending to take advantage of eviction protection under the CDC’s order must sign this declaration form and present it to their landlord. The form is available here. Image courtesy of the CDC

The chairman said his eviction moratorium amendment had two important justifications. First, landlords have complained that many renters aren’t taking advantage of relief funds even though they’re eligible, and they believe sending eviction notices would pressure renters to seek assistance. Second, the city must spend at least 65% of its first half of federal aid by the end of September, or it will have to forfeit the rest of the money to the U.S. Treasury.

The clock is ticking, Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) said during a Council breakfast meeting ahead of the vote. The STAY D.C. program has received roughly 10,000 applications since it launched April 12, equivalent to about $30 million of the total $352 million in funds. Roughly another $100 million must be spent by Sept. 30.

“Every week that we wait makes it much less likely that we utilize all this funding by September,” Pinto said.

But other lawmakers said there’s nothing stopping the city from getting assistance to more residents now, and allowing landlords to pressure tenants with eviction notices is not the only way to speed things up. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen led a successful effort to undo Mendelson’s amendment, urging his colleagues to push the discussion to a hearing at the end of the week focused on an equitable end to safety net protections put in place during the pandemic.

Tenant advocates say the STAY D.C. application process must be refined before tenants are forced to depend on it.

“This proposal comes at a time when these rental assistance programs are not working, and a lot of changes need to be made to get them working,” said Beth Mellen with D.C. Legal Aid. “We really want to see those changes made first.”

Activists with the group Stomp Out Slumlords placed fake coffins in front of Mendelson’s front door Tuesday, saying that loosening the moratorium would kill vulnerable tenants who are forced out of their homes.

Response to the debate was similarly intense on the other side. In response to Allen’s amendment, the CEO of the Small Multifamily Owners Association — which has lobbied the council for months to loosen the eviction moratorium — accused the councilmember of “playing games” with landlords’ lives.

“He is leading the effort to block an amendment that will help landlords get federal rent assistance,” wrote Dean Hunter, the group’s founder, in an all-caps email to members. He “acts like this is a law review exercise or some other game. He has no regard for how the moratorium is impacting your life.”

Debate over the eviction moratorium is expected to continue in the weeks ahead, with councilmembers reconvening in June to consider any changes to the protections.

Issues |COVID-19|Eviction|Housing|Tenants

Region |Washington DC

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