Today the DC Council will consider emergency legislation to wind down eviction protections that have been in place throughout the pandemic. The proposal, drafted by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, would allow actual evictions to move forward immediately, following a 30-day notice to tenants; allow landlords to serve past due rent notices on tenants immediately and to serve pre-court notices for other eviction grounds starting on September 26; and allow landlords to file new eviction cases for nonpayment of rent on October 12 and other types of eviction cases on January 1.
The backdrop for this legislation is Mayor Muriel Bowser’s announcement that she will not extend the public health emergency declaration, meaning eviction protections tied to that declaration will expire sooner if the Council does not act. While we appreciate the difficult position that the Mayor’s announcement puts the Council in, we urge Councilmembers to pass amendments to the bill to make sure that tenants are not evicted unnecessarily during the transition out of emergency protections. Yesterday, Legal Aid and several of our advocacy partners sent a sign-on letter to the Council outlining our request to provide for more time and include other technical amendments.
The legislation adopts a number of recommendations from Legal Aid and other advocates to protect tenants’ rights and prevent unnecessary evictions as the process restarts. These include:
- Requiring landlords to apply for rental assistance and notify a tenant of the pending application and how to complete it before the landlord can bring an eviction case in court, with a 60-day notice that includes the total amount of rent due and attaches a ledger.
- Prohibiting landlords from filing an eviction case for nonpayment of rent unless a tenant does not complete the rental assistance application within 60 days, or the application is denied, or the application is approved, but leaves a balance of at least $600 and the landlord and the tenant do not enter a payment plan for the balance.
- Requiring that all pre-court eviction notices include prominent statements that tenants do not have to vacate unless a court orders their eviction and that they have the right to dispute a landlord's claim in court and remain in their homes during the court case. The notices also must include phone numbers for legal services and the Office of Tenant Advocate.
- Adding other protections for all cases, for example by requiring landlords to have a current license and registration to file a new eviction case, to serve tenants with a court complaint at least 30 days before initial hearing (rather than current law requiring only 7 days), to provide time-stamped photographic evidence when a complaint or pre-court notices is served by posting, to require pre-court notices be provided in a tenant’s preferred language in certain circumstances.
While we appreciate everything Chairman Mendelson has done to include important tenant protections in this bill, we still have concerns that preventable evictions will occur with the proposed timelines for restarting actual evictions, notices, and new eviction case filings. We called on the Council to push out the proposed start dates by at least another 30 to 60 days. This additional time would allow for ongoing improvements to STAY DC, the new rental assistance program that has been beset by problems since it launched in mid-April 2021. It also would allow for Fiscal Year 2022 funding for the local Emergency Rental Assistance Program to be in place and ready to go out the door for those tenants who do not qualify for STAY DC.
Finally, more time would allow for public education. With the passage of this bill, tenants will face new timelines and processes, with landlords able to issue notices of actual eviction dates and past due rent right away. Adding a 30-day buffer would ensure that our organization and others, the Court, and government agencies such as the Office of the Tenant Advocate can get the word out to tenants about what is coming and how to prepare.
We also suggest a few technical amendments to further protect tenants, including clarifying the Court’s existing authority to enforce the law once cases are filed:
- Make clear that the Court must dismiss cases that do not meet the law’s requirements. Even if a tenant defaults or fails to raise defenses, the Court should dismiss a case immediately if the landlord has not followed all of the law’s new requirements.
- Make clear that the Court must continue a case if a tenant has attempted to apply for STAY DC and needs more time. A tenant who has attempted, but been unable to complete a STAY DC application should get more time to submit their application, by adding a requirement for the Court to continue the case for at least 30 days.
- Remove or further tighten the exception for property damage claims. We oppose this exception. If it is included, tenants should receive the same protections as under the existing public safety exception, with referrals to services and an offer of alternative housing.
- Ensure all pre-court notices have clear, non-threatening language. To prevent tenants from moving out early due to fear or harassment, all notices should include standard, non-threatening language emphasizing that tenants do not have to vacate and can take steps to avoid eviction.