D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public health emergency over the coronavirus pandemic March 11 of this year, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson wants to extend it until March 31 of next. 

The District could very well be under a public emergency for over a year, a first for the city. It comes as no surprise given the state of things. The DMV region surpassed 10,000 deaths related to COVID-19 on Thursday. It is sometimes easy to forget that each time the region marks a grim milestone, people are mourning the loss of someone they know. Elsi Mabelicia Campos, a single mother of two and a grandmother of six, is among those who died in recent weeks due to COVID-19 complications.   

The public health emergency is set to expire at the end of the year. Mendelson is having the Council discuss extending the emergency—along with virtually all the protections tethered to it—for another three months in Tuesday’s legislative meeting. The chairman formally requested his proposal be put on the agenda yesterday, as LL first reported.    

If the Council approves the proposal as it is, the eviction moratorium, for example, extends for another couple months. The proposal extends a number of protections through the end of March, except one: utility shutoffs. Instead, the current moratorium on utility disconnections would sunset Jan. 31. 

News that the utility disconnection moratorium won’t be extended along with the public health emergency received some pushback on social media. “Unbelievable. How are unemployed people supposed to pay for utilities?” tweeted Kesh Ladduwahetty, operations director for DC for Democracy. 

Mendelson agreed to an interview to discuss his proposal. Our interview has been edited down for brevity: 

Why extend all protections afforded under the emergency but utility shutoffs? 

We’ve been looking at adjusting a number of the provisions but given a lot of circumstances we weren’t able to add anything else in the bill … Where this is coming from, in regards to utilities, is a realization that we provided duplicate means of relief for utility customers. One is the moratorium, the other is a payment plan option. And the payment plan option protects a customer from adverse credit reports and protects them from shutoff and protects them from having a lump sum amount due when the emergency ends … In addition, the moratorium is a very blunt approach. It applies to everybody. I’m still getting a paycheck but I can still avoid getting my utility bills and nothing can be done of that. That is not the goal here, to provide relief for well-off people who are still working. What is becoming increasingly evident, both with utilities and in the rental housing sphere is that we need to try to narrowly focus the protection on those who actually need the protection. 

How do you know people who can be paying are not paying because of the moratorium?   

I’m increasingly hearing reports of it. [Ed note: Mendelson says these are secondhand reports from the utility sector, constituent service staff, and fellow councilmembers.] Now I don’t have a statistical analysis. But I think if you reach out to landlords—now, landlords are not subject to this but I think the analogy is on point—you will hear there are tenants who have the ability to pay but are not. We are seeing it in another way. We  have assistance programs. If you look at for instance [the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program]—I was just talking with the mayor’s people—I believe that applications for emergency assistance are way down. I am told that applications for rental assistance—ERAP—are way down. We added money to ERAP, but the applications are down. People are not taking advantage because, as I have said before, the moratorium was such a blunt approach … Let me be very clear, the goal is not to be seeing customers thrown out in the street, freezing in their apartments. That is not the goal at all. We want to make sure that people who have been injured by the public health emergency are provided relief, nothing more and nothing less. 

A fear is red tape can lead to shut offs. Describe how seamless you understand entering a payment plan to be? It is meant to be minimally burdensome on the customer. A customer has to pay their bill every month, so if a customer [that] can’t pay their bill has to talk to their utility provider … I think where the burden is on the utility provider, because they got to make sure they are following the law and they are doing everything that they can to make it as easy as possible for the customer … the plan, looking at the statue: a minimum term length of one year unless a shorter time is requested by customer, waive fee, interest, or penalty. [Ed note: Utilities have to inform customers of the option of a payment plan. Someone can enter a plan no matter how much they owe. And existing law bars Pepco, DC Water, and Washington Gas from disconnections during extreme temperatures, however not internet providers.]  

A statement the chairman made during the 18-minute interview that resonated with me: “[Customers who can’t pay utility bills] are not looking for assistance that is available, and that is not good because in the end they will have a greater debt. We have the money budgeted now. We won’t have twice the money budgeted next year … When the customers don’t keep up with their payments which they could do through these assistance programs, they are going to get a lump sum in the end but we are not able to budget a lump sum.”

 —Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

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