As a part of its $350 million Emergency Rental Assistance allocation from the Department of Treasury, the District launched a new rental assistance program on April 12, 2021 called Stronger Together by Assisting You, or STAY DC. The purpose of this program is to stabilize tenants who have experienced financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent evictions by providing tenants with up to 18 months of rent relief.
According to reports from the Department of Housing and Community Development, over the past month, approximately 11,000 tenants have submitted a complete application for rental assistance online, and another 10,000 have initiated applications. Yet, not a single tenant has been approved for, let alone awarded, rent relief. Tenants and advocates are understandably concerned that STAY DC may end up being an ineffectual and inaccessible program unable to accomplish its stated objectives.
There are several serious issues with STAY DC that could prevent thousands of tenants from benefiting from the federal funds provided to the District to prevent an eviction crisis. Here are just a few of the most concerning problems:
- Tenants are required to have an email address to apply for assistance.
Despite what we know about inequitable access to internet or technology across the District and the reality that individuals may struggle navigating technology, STAY DC has made it mandatory for all tenants seeking to apply for rental assistance to have a stable internet connection, and both an email address and a firm command over how to use it. Individuals who may have trouble simply are instructed to find a friend, a family member, or a case manager to help them.
This barrier runs contrary to the purpose of the Emergency Rental Assistance program as specified by the Treasury. These programs are intended to be easily accessible, to meet tenants where they are, and to provide relief. Instead, STAY DC risks denying access to any tenant on the other side of the digital divide. The program has a clear responsibility to help tenants access relief, and that responsibility is not being fulfilled.
- Self-attestation is actively discouraged, despite federal guidance mandating otherwise.
Throughout both the STAY DC website and application, self-attestations are actively discouraged. Tenants applying for STAY DC will repeatedly see language that “additional verification procedures will be needed to validate assertions made in the attestation that may require an outreach from a Program Agent and/or result in delayed processing times.” This goes directly against federal guidance, which explicitly “prohibits grantees from establishing documentation requirements that would reduce participation.” Though self-attestation sheets were added to the site on Friday afternoon, no clear instructions on how to use them were provided. Self-attestation should be encouraged to ensure that as many tenants receive relief as possible.
This is a lesson that the District learned with our local Emergency Rental Assistance Program. When self-certification became the standard for ERAP after legislative changes in November, tenants in need were able to access relief more quickly than ever before. Removing burdensome and unnecessary documentation requirements ensures that the relief provided will match the level of need.
- The program is failing to communicate with landlords or tenants applying.
Legal Aid has spoken with dozens of tenants and advocates about their experiences with STAY DC and we have yet to hear of a single outcome. No approvals, no denials, no awards. Tenants have no way of knowing whether their documentation has been accepted or if they have been deemed eligible. If they call the 833-4STAYDC line, they are met by staff that too often are unhelpful and have no meaningful information to provide.
To date, the STAY DC portal appears to be incapable of timely and effective communication with applicants. The website provides very little information about application status updates; so far, we have only seen the status change from “Pending Housing Provider” to “Under Review.” We are aware of only a handful of email communications that have gone out to tenants and landlords with pending applications. Only this week, nearly 30 days after the program launched and early applications were submitted, we saw responses stating that STAY DC is working on matching tenant and landlord applications with one another to speed up the process. When we attempted to call the STAY DC hotline for an update on a particular application, we were told that our client would simply have to wait for an update.
- Landlords currently are not able to apply on behalf of tenants.
Despite references to a housing provider application offered on the STAY DC website, the program does not actually allow landlords to apply on behalf of tenants. The current “housing provider application” is nothing more than a referral, alerting tenants (if the email the landlord has on record is even correct) to apply. While some landlords are assisting tenants with completing applications, landlords have no way of accessing STAY DC funds on their own. A functional landlord application would significantly decrease barriers to assistance by allowing landlords to work with their tenants to ensure that rental arrears are covered and giving them direct access to the program.
We are concerned that this lack of a landlord application process also has fueled a false and damaging narrative that tenants are not applying for this program. This is simply untrue. DHCD’s numbers indicate that approximately 20,000 tenants have applied in the first month alone. Tenants are actively pursuing these funds, and the program simply is not yet meeting their demand.
- The lack of transparency around STAY DC makes it impossible to hold the program accountable.
While many advocates have heard reports from various sources regarding the number of applications submitted or portal accounts created, no numbers have been publicly released on STAY DC. This program has been open for more than a month, and is slated to give out up to $350 million, yet the public has not learned anything about how many people have requested assistance, which neighborhoods are most represented in the applicant pool, or whether anyone has been deemed eligible for assistance. There is no way of knowing if this program is being distributed equitably, and there is no way to measure accountability.
- There currently is no relief for tenants with balances prior to the public health emergency.
The affordable housing crisis in DC long predates the COVID-19 pandemic. Every year, need outmatches funding in our local Emergency Rental Assistance Program and this year even more so. Right now, no ERAP providers are accepting new applications and almost all are entirely out of funding. This has happened months sooner than in previous years.
For the many tenants with pre-April 2020 balances, there is no relief that will stop their eviction for nonpayment of rent. More funds must be placed in ERAP to protect low-income District residents who struggled to keep up with their rent even prior to the public health emergency. Tenants with this need also should not have to submit a separate application to ERAP, but instead should be approved once they complete a STAY DC application.
No carve out, such as the one currently being considered by Council, should be made to the eviction moratorium on non-payment of rent cases until STAY DC is effectively providing tenants with the relief provided under federal law. Tenants do not need to be incentivized to apply to this program by being sued for eviction, and having a case in eviction court can cause a devastating cycle of housing instability for years. The issues with STAY DC must be fixed, and District leaders must make this a priority. We have the means to prevent an eviction crisis. It is past time they be put to use.