On Tuesday, the DC Council will consider a legislative proposal to cut back on the District’s eviction moratorium. Landlords currently are prohibited from serving tenants with eviction notices, filing new eviction cases, or actually evicting tenants. In early April, the Council approved a narrow exception allowing the eviction process to restart where tenants present a current and substantial public safety threat. The Council now will consider whether to create a similar exception for nonpayment of rent.
In December 2020 and March 2021, the federal government approved sending up to $352 million in emergency rental assistance to the District for tenants who fell behind on rent during the pandemic. On April 12, the District launched the new STAY DC program with an online application portal to distribute these funds. Since that time, according to numbers provided by the Department of Housing & Community Development last week, approximately 10,000 tenants have submitted completed applications online and another 10,000 tenants have started the process. Unfortunately, according to the Mayor’s staff, not a single payment has been made. These problems must be resolved first.
Evictions for nonpayment of rent should not restart until rental assistance programs are working.
The purpose of the eviction moratorium and the STAY DC program are to ensure that tenants do not face eviction and displacement during or as a result of the public health emergency. As the District’s COVID-19 metrics improve and reopening begins, it is critical to remember that tens of thousands of District residents still face economic devastation caused by the pandemic. Over 18,000 District households report they are behind on their rent; 95% of these households are headed by a person of color, and the overwhelming majority (80%) are Black. Without rental assistance in place for these families, restarting the eviction process risks displacing thousands of Black and Latinx families.
Ensuring tenants are able to access rental assistance first not only benefits tenants, it also benefits landlords. Evicting a tenant in financial distress does nothing to put money in the landlord’s bank account. Only ensuring that STAY DC and other rental assistance programs are working will do that. The overwhelming demand for STAY DC shows that tenants do not need an eviction case hanging over their heads to seek help. Tenants are not the problem; the poor performance of STAY DC is.
The District government needs to fix the numerous problems with STAY DC. The Council also needs to ensure that other funds are available for tenants who do not qualify for STAY DC, including tenants who have balances that date back before the pandemic. The local Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) currently is out funds with thousands of applications still pending. Until the STAY DC portal is fixed and ERAP is fully-funded, the Council should vote down any attempt to restart evictions for nonpayment of rent.
Tenant protections should be put in place before the eviction process restarts.
The current proposal contains important protections for tenants that the Council should put in place before the eviction process restarts.
First, landlords should not be able to sue a tenant for nonpayment of rent until they have applied for rental assistance on behalf of the tenant. Putting the burden on landlords – who are more likely to have access to technology to complete an online application – makes good sense.
Second, landlords should be required to provide tenants with notice before any new eviction cases are filed. The notice should include details about how much the tenant owes and for which months, how to complete the rental assistance application, and the tenants’ rights in the eviction process.
Finally, the Council should consider other protections for tenants to prevent unnecessary and harmful evictions. These include ensuring adequate notice before initial court hearings, curbing sewer service, prohibiting evictions based solely on late payment of rent, and ensuring remaining family members are not evicted when a tenant passes away or moves out.
Legal Aid will be sharing these ideas and more at the hearing scheduled for next Friday, May 21, before the Special Committee on COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery on ensuring an equitable end to the District’s emergency protections. As the Special Committee notes, the task before the Council is to ensure “the District can recover from the pandemic in a way that ensures the health and safety of all residents, but in particular the Black and Brown residents who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.” Until the tenant protections outlined above are put in place, restarting the eviction process risks exactly the opposite result. The Council can and should do better.