D.C. Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein ruled on Dec. 16 that legislation passed by the D.C. Council earlier this year banning landlords from filing eviction proceedings is unconstitutional and violates property owners’ rights. The legislation from May prohibited eviction filings until 60 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency, which will be extended until March 31, 2021 pending Mayor Muriel Bowser’s authorization, ends. The ruling means landlords can now start filing for eviction, even while tenants are still protected from actually being evicted until the May 31 deadline.
In his ruling Epstein wrote that “the filing moratorium limits [landlords’ rights] by denying property owners their day in court for an extended and definite period.” The new ruling will speed up the process for evicting tenants by allowing landlords to begin filing in preparation for the moratorium ending. The eviction ban is a temporary relief for those who are struggling to keep up with rent payments or will be overwhelmed by rent debt once the moratorium is lifted. There is currently no grace period to pay rent or make a payment plan to assist with rental debt that has accumulated over the course of the pandemic.
According to the Aspen Institute, there are between 118,000 and 131,000 renters in the District at risk of eviction. Although the council has passed emergency legislation to help tenants those protections will not last. Some landlords have continued to illegally evict tenants during the ban mostly impacting low income or vulnerable renters.
A recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Los Angeles showed cities that lifted their eviction moratoriums saw an increase in their numbers of COVID-19 cases and homelessness. More than 10,000 people have died from COVID-19 as a result of evictions. The CDC has acknowledged that displacement will increase the spread of the virus and recommended halting residential evictions. D.C. has not lifted its moratorium since it was first put into place at the beginning of the pandemic.
Epstein noted that the lack of affordable housing in the District has been a problem since before the pandemic and wrote that he “hopes that the legislative and executive branches of government will find ways to enable the families to keep or find affordable housing after the current public health emergency ends.”