After temporarily boosting housing and nutrition benefits in the first year of the pandemic, the D.C. Council is poised to make their expansion permanent. Legislators unanimously approved the measures during a first reading at their Dec. 6 meeting, with final consideration expected next week.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed gaps in D.C.’s human services system amid an influx of new applications for assistance, according to Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the Committee on Human Services. To help residents stay housed and healthy during the public health emergency, local and federal benefits programs lowered barriers and scaled up assistance. But many of those changes were temporary and are now expiring.
Two bills granted initial approval this month would permanently expand eligibility for emergency rental assistance, increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and double the size of a pilot program that helps families relying on Rapid Rehousing subsidies.
For the bills to be implemented, the council must pass them a second time on Dec. 20; officials would also need to fund the SNAP expansion in the District’s fiscal year 2024 budget. Neither bill faces opposition.
The council did not vote on a related proposal to substantially alter D.C.’s often-criticized Rapid Rehousing (RRH) program, which provides time-limited housing subsidies, though councilmembers say they plan to reintroduce the legislation next session.
The council also gave initial approval to the Domestic Worker Employment Rights Amendment Act of 2022 after a four-year campaign by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The bill will add domestic workers, such as caretakers and housekeepers, to non-discrimination protections and mandate contracts between domestic workers and their employers.
“These women have been asking for something we all consider pretty basic: dignity, fairness, respect, and a safe workplace,” At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said at the Dec. 6 meeting. Several alliance members stayed until nearly 9 p.m. to watch the council take its first vote on the bill.
“Your determination, your advocacy, your many hours of testimony, your many hours of sitting here, your sharing of personal stories of wage theft, sexual harassment, fear of retaliation for asking for a fair and dignified workplace — all those efforts and many, many hours paid off today,” said Silverman, who introduced the bill and helped prod council action. To be implemented, the bill will require funding in next year’s budget.
Emergency rental assistance expanded
During the first years of the pandemic, thousands of D.C. residents applied for assistance to cover past-due rent. Much of this aid was distributed through D.C.’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which provides up to five months of aid for residents behind on their rent due to job loss or other emergencies, as well as a security deposit and the first month’s rent for people who have to move.
The program was previously limited to families with children under 18, seniors, or people with disabilities. The pandemic made these restrictions seem arbitrary as all types of households faced daunting back-rent balances, Nadeau said. Since 2020, the council has passed a series of emergency and temporary bills to expand eligibility to all D.C. residents who make below 40% of the area median income annually, a threshold that opens the program to those making up to $40,320 for two people and $50,400 for a family of four.
Legislation first introduced by D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson and At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds in March 2021 and passed on Dec. 6 makes that change permanent. In an effort to keep up with rising rents, the bill also raises the maximum amount of aid that households can receive.
“There’s no reason to return to a pre-pandemic status quo when it was too hard for the households most in need to access ERAP,” Nadeau said.
The bill also makes two programmatic changes: It simplifies the ERAP application process and removes a requirement that recipients be assigned to a case manager. While some ERAP recipients can benefit from case management, it isn’t always worthwhile for people facing a one-time crisis, Samantha Koshgarian, an attorney with Legal Aid D.C. said at a public hearing on the bill.
“The problem is not a need for case management. There is simply not enough money to get through the emergency,” Koshgarian said of the issue that spurs many ERAP applications.
The federal SNAP program gives a monthly subsidy to low-income households to purchase groceries. Each household’s benefits are calculated on a sliding scale as a percentage of the maximum benefit available. For instance, a household of two could receive between $20 and $459 each month, depending on assets and income.
Federal pandemic relief packages enacted in 2020 boosted aid to add “emergency allotments” to each household’s SNAP benefits — an average monthly increase of $80 per person. These allotments will end with the federally designated public health emergency, which is currently extended through January 2023.
Before the pandemic, the average benefit for the 135,000 low-income D.C. households who receive SNAP was $149 a month, or just under $5 a day. More than half of the participating households use all their benefits in the first half of the month, At-large Councilmember Christina Henderson said at the Dec. 6 meeting. With benefits lower than the cost of food, there’s a District-wide SNAP food security gap of at least $160 million annually, according to Henderson.
“SNAP is supposed to be supplemental to a household’s food budget, but for many of the District’s SNAP beneficiaries, it makes up most or all of their food budget,” Jen Jenkins, a policy advocate at Legal Aid D.C., testified at a public hearing this spring.
The Give SNAP a Raise Amendment Act of 2022 is designed to fill part of that gap by increasing every household’s benefits by 10% of the maximum monthly allotment for their household size. This change will mean a $47 monthly increase for each household on average.
In order for the increases to be implemented, the mayor and council will need to allocate $50 million in FY 2024.
Rapid Rehousing not reformed
The pandemic also exposed gaps in the Rapid Rehousing (RRH) program, which provides a short-term housing subsidy to people experiencing homelessness. The program is time-limited, and while it aims to help participants exit with a stable income, many families instead return to homelessness or housing insecurity.
Families already on RRH at the beginning of the pandemic received several subsidy extensions, though participants weren’t assured of that in advance. The looming eviction of hundreds of families drew legislative attention to the problem many participants already knew — that RRH, on its own, does not lead to long-term housing.
In an attempt to reform the program and provide more stability for families, Mendelson introduced the Rapid Re-Housing Reform Amendment Act in June. Under his proposal, families would be transitioned to other housing programs if they cannot afford rent when their RRH subsidy ends, functionally ending the time limit. Though the bill received a hearing, it was not passed out of committee and will die at the end of Council Period 24. Mendelson intends to introduce a similar bill in 2023, his office said.
In the meantime, the council gave initial approval to an expansion that will cover some participants.
In May, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a pilot for 300 families in RRH that will provide up to five years of rental assistance, cash to cover any benefits families lose as they increase their income, and employment resources. The program, called Career MAP, was initially established on a temporary basis and funded with federal money. Due to high demand, Bowser announced in September that the program would expand to 600 families. A provision in the same legislation that expands ERAP makes the pilot permanent.
A different version of this article appeared in print.
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.