Residents say DC’s rental assistance and SNAP programs can be inaccessible and inefficient

A laptop is open to the portal to apply for emergency rental assistance.

Applications for emergency rental assistance face high demand. Photo by Annemarie Cuccia

During a marathon oversight hearing on Feb. 29, D.C.’s Department of Human Services (DHS) faced scrutiny for its failure to deliver on critical programs, including the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Both have been in the news in the past year as part of a larger fight between Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council over how much money to devote to social safety net programs. As DHS faces mid-year cuts in fiscal year 2024 and likely further cuts in fiscal year 2025, the future of ERAP hangs in the balance.

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program

ERAP provides rental assistance to struggling tenants for a limited time during housing emergencies. Multiple witnesses at the oversight hearing, held by the Committee of Housing, called ERAP a critical frontline program that often makes the difference between housing stability and homelessness.

Historically, ERAP has been overwhelmed by a high demand for relief. Until the current fiscal year, the program accepted applications on a rolling basis and tended to run out of money several months before the end of the year. To spread funds, DHS tried accepting applications on a quarterly basis this fiscal year. During the most recent application cycle in January, the 3,500 application cap was reached in just four hours.

The narrow window to submit an application was compounded by the inaccessibility of the application process. Witnesses said the ERAP application portal posed technological and language barriers for many applicants, especially those who were elderly, had disabilities, or did not speak English.

“The application requires a computer, internet access, and a smartphone or web tablet,” Andria Chatmon, a housing organizer with Empower DC, said. “Many residents didn’t have this access and were relying on library computers with little privacy.”

Public witnesses said the ERAP application portal is known to crash during application windows.

“In October, [the ERAP application portal] was down for many days and people didn’t know when it would be open for sure. In January, it was down for an hour of the total of five hours that it was available,” Elena Bowers, a supervising attorney at Legal Aid DC, said. “If people were to reach out to tech support, they wouldn’t have gotten a response before the portal closed.”

Compounding this unpredictability of the technology, the portal was only open during traditional working hours in the latest round. In at least one case, someone seeking help saw that the ERAP application portal was down and left the day center, where he had computer access, only to realize that the portal was closed by the time he returned, Michael Broughton, a program manager with Pathways to Housing DC, told Street Sense in January.

The ERAP application portal is also only available in English. While there is an automated Google translate plug-in on the website, the translations are not always accurate. Witnesses said this puts non-English speakers in danger of misinterpreting information. Chatmon, the Empower DC organizer, proposed that there should be web navigation in Spanish and Amharic — two of the six languages other than English that the D.C. government is legally obligated to provide support for.

Chatmon suggested DHS should also provide an in-person aplication option with language support for the elderly, people with disabilities, and non-English speakers. This would allow applicants to complete their application with the guidance of program staff. This suggestion was echoed by Amanda Eisenhower, a tenant support specialist at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center.

Challenges persist beyond the application. A few witnesses said processing delays prevented successful applicants from obtaining benefits.

“DHS often misplaces or fails to timely process important documents regardless of how customers submit them,” said Haley Hoff, a staff attorney at Legal Aid DC. “Many customers have had their benefits terminated due to processing delays.”

Public witnesses further highlighted that ERAP, by design, does not triage applications or prioritize residents who are most at risk of eviction. This is because applications for ERAP are processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

In some cases, witnesses said ERAP even disadvantaged residents who needed rental assistance the most, aggravating existing geographic inequities in D.C. This is because the amount of ERAP benefits residents receive is dependent on their zip code. Under ERAP, residents in neighborhoods with higher average rent are eligible for more rental assistance.

“Residents in neighborhoods with a lower concentration of luxury apartments that raise the average rent are eligible for much less assistance, regardless of their actual rent,” Eisenhower said.

Consequently, residents in underserved neighborhoods, like many neighborhoods in Ward 8, are eligible for less assistance. Chatmon said Empower DC’s own outreach data showed most eviction filings from 2023 were in Ward 8, which is over 80% Black.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

ERAP is not the only DHS program that was said to have structural flaws. Several witnesses also voiced complaints about the inefficiencies surrounding processing and disbursing SNAP benefits.

In 2022, the District ranked worst in the country with only 42.86% of applications for SNAP benefits processed in accordance with the timelines required by federal regulations. According to Martha Assefa, an anti-hunger associate at DC Hunger Solutions, DHS takes up to two months to process expedited benefits. That is eight times longer than the one-week period expected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I can’t forget the heartbreaking calls with community members who are suicidal because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Assefa said.

Swapna Yeluri, a senior attorney with Legal Counsel for the Elderly, recounted how a client had tried to correct their household size for SNAP benefits in a tedious process that took three years, during which time they were deprived of benefits. Another client’s SNAP benefits were terminated because DHS lost their application.

Last March, the council unanimously passed the Give SNAP A Raise Act, which would temporarily expand benefits for each SNAP recipient by 10%. While initially refusing to fund the increase to SNAP, Bowser finally capitulated after the council threatened to take legal action.

What now?

The budget for fiscal year 2025 was supposed to be released on March 20, but was delayed to the end of the month. In the meantime, some councilmembers have predicted major cuts across the board, in part due to expenses like plugging the Metro’s deficit. For ERAP and SNAP, this could mean operating under even more financial strain moving forward.

Laura Green Zeilinger, the director of DHS, said ERAP was an expensive and ultimately unsustainable solution to the housing affordability crisis. In what seemed a nod to Bowser’s views, Zeilinger told the committee the infusion of federal funds into ERAP during the pandemic “created an expectation that [DHS] cannot meet,” referring to the high demand for ERAP.

“ERAP is never going to have a budget of $300 million and we need to be honest with residents that they need to do everything they can to pay their rent,” Zeilinger said.

Bowers, the Legal Aid DC attorney, nevertheless pointed out that DHS has imposed an “arbitrary” limit of 3,500 applications per quarter. She said the limit prevents other applicants from accessing rental assistance even when funds are still available.

“Instead of looking for ways to limit who has access to the program, DHS should be figuring out the true annual need for ERAP and pursuing funding for the program,” Bowers told the committee.

Other witnesses decried the historic lack of funding for ERAP, describing the inaccessibility of rental assistance as dehumanizing.

“It is wrong to force poor people to compete for crumbs of what is needed for survival,” said Sierra Ramirez, an organizer with the Woodner Tenants’ Union. “We need you to respect our human dignity by fighting for the resources we need and fixing the platforms necessary for accessing them.”

Issues |Hunger|Social Services|Tenants

Region |Washington DC

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