The Mayor’s FY19 budget proposes to slash the Emergency Rental Assistance Program’s (ERAP) budget by $1.765 million. After accounting for a similar cut to ERAP last year, this means that there will be over $3 million fewer dollars available to prevent families from being evicted than there were two years ago. This is unacceptable and cruel. As attorneys who work with District residents facing eviction, we see first-hand that ERAP is perhaps the District’s most effective eviction-prevention tool. Yet, even at current funding levels, the program runs out of money and shuts down partway through each fiscal year because it is woefully underfunded. As I made clear in Legal Aid’s testimony at the Department of Human Services’ budget hearing last week, the Mayor’s proposed budget will take an effective program that is already facing a serious budgetary shortfall and make things worse.
ERAP’s eligibility requirements already limit the funds only to those families who are struggling. In order to qualify for ERAP, a family must be at or below 125% of the federal poverty line. This means that if a family of three makes more than $25,975, it does not qualify for assistance. Families with children or an elderly person can qualify for up to $4,250 to pay off back rent. Families with a household member living with a disability, or with seven or more children, can qualify for up to $6,000 in assistance.
Even if a family qualifies, however, getting assistance is a challenge. Tenants must call ERAP providers relentlessly (sometimes over 100 times in a row) in order to get an appointment. Then, each year around July, ERAP providers start running out of funds. By September of each year, most providers are completely out of money. This means that whether a family is going to be evicted for nonpayment of rent often depends on what month that family is sued for eviction. Further cuts to ERAP would only exacerbate this situation and leave the most vulnerable families with no way of saving their homes.
The Mayor and DHS are justifying decreasing the ERAP budget by arguing 1) that the Homeless Prevention Programs will serve some applicants; and 2) that tenants with subsidies generally should not be receiving ERAP. This is misleading and misguided. First, tenants facing eviction for nonpayment of rent do not need the case management services that Homeless Prevention Programs offer; these families need money to pay off their balances. Second, families with subsidies experience emergencies the same way that non-subsidized households do. For example, Legal Aid assisted one client who was experiencing debilitating depression and anxiety and could not leave her apartment to report her job loss to her subsidized landlord. This led to her accruing a balance. Without ERAP, she would have been evicted.
Legal Aid attorneys work with dozens of tenants each month in landlord and tenant court who need ERAP assistance in order pay their back rent and remain in their homes. These are families that often have to choose between paying their rent and paying for childcare, food, or medical care. By suggesting that some families who have received ERAP in the past should not have is to suggest that the lowest income families in the District are somehow receiving too much assistance from their government. That is an absurd premise that the D.C. Council should not endorse by accepting the administration’s proposed decreases to the ERAP budget. Instead, the Council should increase funding for ERAP to a level that is consistent with community need.