The D.C. Council passed a comprehensive tenant rights bill on March 1 with new protections for voucher holders and for renters who have faced eviction proceedings.
The Eviction Record Sealing Authority Amendment Act of 2021 bans landlords from charging voucher holders higher rents or considering their rental history when deciding whether to lease to them. It also makes several temporary, pandemic-era tenant protections permanent, sealing eviction records after three years and placing a cap of $50 on application fees.
The bill, which passed 13-0 on its final reading, tasks D.C.’s Office of Human Rights with enforcing the ban on discrimination against voucher holders. The council hasn’t yet transmitted the bill to the mayor for her signature; to become law, it must also undergo congressional review.
Advocates have been pushing for these changes for years, according to Rhonda Cunningham Holmes, executive director at the Legal Counsel for the Elderly. “I think that [the council] made a tremendous stride in helping to lower the barriers for low-income tenants so that they have access to more rental housing and that they are being treated fairly when applying to housing,” she said.
These provisions represent just a fraction of the tenant protections included in the final legislation, the final iteration of a bill Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh has introduced every term since 2018. The council temporarily implemented many of the protections in 2020 amid warnings about a looming evictions crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“[The pandemic] forced governments to focus on the fact that everyone did not have a place to stay at home in,” said Brit Ruffin, senior counsel at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
This new legislation builds on the temporary protections established in 2020 and 2021. Previous emergency bills barred evictions when tenants owed less than $600 in rent and allowed the D.C. Superior Court to automatically seal eviction records, protections the 2022 bill strengthened. The notice of a landlord’s intent to evict now must be provided not just in English but also in a tenant’s primary language in accordance with the Language Access Act of 2004. The landlord must make it clear to tenants that they have the right to stay in the unit until evicted and provide them with information about available legal services. The bill also clarifies that the court can provide sealed eviction records to a tenant without reopening the record. It also adds the existence of a sealed eviction record as a protected trait to D.C.’s Human Rights Act and allows tenants to sue landlords for compensation if their rights are violated.
Some of the added protections for voucher holders proved contentious. One such provision bans landlords from considering the credit score and rental history — including late rent or nonpayment of rent — that a potential tenant had before obtaining a voucher. Councilmembers argued that since subsidies are intended to assist people who are not able to afford full market rent, it’s likely they would have struggled in the past to pay rent. As approved, the bill allows landlords to consider the rental history of voucher holders for the period during which they have relied on subsidies.
While the bill passed on first reading without debate, there was an attempt to remove the protections prior to the second vote. Citing concerns from landlords, At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the housing committee, asked to delay the bill. Chair Phil Mendelson then introduced an amended version removing protections for voucher holders, releasing the new draft in the days leading up to the March 1 vote.
During debate on the amended bill, Mendelson said he thought that limiting what landlords could ask prospective tenants was against “good business practices.” In response to a question about the issue during a Q&A with constituents, he said the initial language included in the bill had been “very broadly written,” though he did not elaborate on which parts.
Mendelson said on the dais that he had worked with Cheh, Bonds, and At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman in an effort to revise the bill. He also argued that income is not the only reason someone might be behind on rent — for instance, some tenants may take advantage of loopholes when they can afford to pay. Since subsidies don’t always cover the full cost of rent, landlords may still need to consider past rental history, Mendelson argued.
“The vouchers are not necessarily 100%, so therefore the payment history has some relevance and shouldn’t be completely prevented,” he said. “I think that is relevant to whether that tenant is a risk when they want to rent regardless of whether or not they have a voucher.”
But Mendelson’s arguments failed to sway colleagues, who responded to a late push by activists by reinserting the protections prior to the final vote on the bill.
The impact on voucher holders
Even though D.C. law already prohibits landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on their source of income, it’s something Ruffin says her clients experience regularly. Housing advocates say some landlords use vouchers as a proxy to discriminate against low-income tenants and tenants of color and work around the current law by setting higher income requirements to freeze out voucher holders.
“It’s problematic that landlords would find the language problematic unless the intention was to continue discriminatory practices,” Ruffin said. “When we have things like voucher discrimination going on, it significantly minimizes folks’ access to housing.”
Once Holmes and other advocates found out the voucher protections were being removed from the bill, they sent letters to the council urging reinstatement. “The whole point of having a voucher is being able to go to find housing that is otherwise inaccessible,” she said.
After this last-minute prodding by tenant advocacy organizations, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen introduced an amendment restoring the protections for voucher holders while modifying the language to avoid running afoul of federal law. Mendelson called the amendment a compromise, and the council passed it unanimously.
Allen argued people who have struggled to pay rent on time in the past are extremely unlikely to experience the same challenge with a subsidy. ”We should not be throwing barriers in the way of the actions we’ve just taken to help people get housed,” he said.
In this year’s budget, the council funded an unprecedented number of permanent supportive housing (PSH) vouchers to house 2,300 individuals and 535 families experiencing homelessness. Many of these residents may not have a high credit score or a stellar rental history, but with a voucher may be able to pay their rent on time.
Building on past eviction protections
In October 2020, the council passed emergency legislation that addressed many of the same issues as the new bill. It allowed the D.C. courts to automatically seal eviction records 30 days after filing if the person was not evicted, and three years afterward if they were evicted. Eviction records are created any time a landlord files to evict a tenant, even if the tenant is not evicted. From 2014 to 2018, only 5.5% of filings in D.C. resulted in a formal eviction. Unless access is restricted, tenant advocates warn, renters face an unfair burden if a prospective landlord considers those records when deciding whether to rent to them.
“Eviction records — no matter how old, and no matter whether the tenant was actually evicted — have long been used by landlords to deny tenants units, or to charge higher rents,” Cheh’s office wrote in a statement to Street Sense Media and The DC Line.
Since the temporary bill went into effect, the D.C. Superior Court has sealed hundreds of thousands of eviction records, according to Cheh’s office.
The 2020 law also included additional protections, repeated in the 2022 version: One prevents landlords from using past evictions when deciding whether to rent to someone, and another requires landlords to provide a 30-day notice before filing an eviction. Both versions also ban landlords from filing for eviction if the tenant owes less than $600 in rent — which used to apply to 12% of eviction cases in D.C. — or if the landlord does not have a valid business license.
Several transparency measures passed in 2020 are also part of the permanent law. Landlords must continue to provide photographic evidence they gave a 30-day notice before an eviction. During the application process, landlords must tell prospective tenants what factors they will use when deciding whether or not to rent to them. They must also provide applicants with a reason they are being denied. The court must dismiss eviction filings from landlords who do not adhere to these provisions.
While advocates such as Holmes say the bill will give much-needed protections to tenants, they argue that the council should do more to help them. She believes the council should outlaw or set a lower cap on application fees, which can be a burden to people who apply to multiple places.
Given past and continuing inequities, allowing landlords to consider the tenant’s credit history at all can enable landlords to discriminate based on race, according to Ruffin and the Council Office on Racial Equity’s assessment. Nearly 1 in 5 Black consumers and 1 in 9 Hispanic consumers have credit scores below 620 compared to 1 in 19 white consumers, according to Forbes, a disparity based in a lack of access to generational wealth.
Additionally, while the new bill allows applicants who experience discrimination to sue landlords for compensation, tenants still need to find a place to live, Ruffin said. And several housing advocates suggest that eviction records ought to be sealed sooner, especially in cases where the court has ruled in favor of the tenant.
“This bill is a gigantic step forward,“ Ruffin said. “It does a lot of great things, but we know this isn’t the end.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Annemarie Cuccia covers D.C. government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.