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A group created to address the District’s rent crisis is finalizing a report that will propose changes to the eviction moratorium. The so-called strike force may recommend amending the ban to allow landlords to file evictions against tenants who pose “substantial threats to health and safety” and creating safeguards against the looming eviction tidal wave once the moratorium is lifted. 

When Mayor Muriel Bowser extended the public health emergency through May 20, the Council’s eviction moratorium extended along with it and for 60 days after. The office of Chairman Phil Mendelson says the Council is waiting to see the strike force’s recommendations before making any changes to the blunt ban on evictions, from notices to executions.        

The strike force, a roughly 30-member group of housing experts, is weighing whether to recommend creating an exemption of specific types of eviction cases to the existing moratorium. During a virtual meeting March 19, the strike force presented a recommendation that would allow landlords to issue notices to cure and to file evictions against individuals who “present current and substantial threats to health and safety to tenants and on-site personnel because of illegal firearms, drug sales involving violence, and serious threats/acts of violence.” 

The group is also weighing whether to recommend targeted rental assistance, along with supplemental aid to those excluded from federal dollars; a “diversion program,” where the goal is to reduce court filings and resolve disputes that can lead to evictions; and a phased approach to the end of the moratorium, 60 days beyond stated end dates so that the courts and service providers could offer help to vulnerable tenants. 

The strike force has one more meeting scheduled for March 26 before releasing a final report. The meeting gives them one last opportunity to build consensus. The recommendations are not binding, but the mayor’s office, government agencies, and the Council are expected to at least consider the recommendations if not implement them all. Bowser adopted the recommendations of the last housing strike force.       

“I will be the first to admit they aren’t perfect but I think they will help people,” Department of Housing and Community Development Director Polly Donaldson said of the strike force’s recommendations. She chairs the group. 

Based on the conversation in meetings so far, the strike force appears to be in general agreement around most of the recommendations related to the eviction moratorium. (The group is also deliberating rent control and long-term recovery.) A few voiced support for ideas that got ahead of the eviction process like the diversion program and rental assistance. The group, however, is still debating how narrow to make its exemption to the existing moratorium. Eva Rosen, a Georgetown University assistant professor, suggested that the exemption be as targeted as possible. She took issue with language that stated “strive to restore safe and residential communities by addressing breaches that impact quality of life,” because this contradicted the intent of the proposed recommendation by being too broad. Rosen got support from Marian Siegel, the executive director of the Housing Counseling Services, and Randi Marshall, the vice president of government affairs at the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. 

Most strike force members who represent the interests of landlords believed the language was too narrow. Dean Hunter, CEO of Small Multifamily Owners Association, said the strike force would lose consensus if they were to accept Rosen’s comment. Josh Bernstein, the CEO of Bernstein Management, agreed with Hunter, citing an example of a young child who started a fire and damaged 40 units in the process. “I just want to be careful that we are not so narrow that we tie landlords’ hands from actually taking action from a resident like that. There are other ways to jeopardize safety other than violent acts,” said Berstein. 

Even before the strike force released recommendations, legislation related to the eviction moratorium was already circulating in the Council. One amendment to the public health emergency legislation comes from At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, a member of the strike force. A March 2 version of the amendment would let landlords file evictions if an individual allegedly engaged in “illegal activity” resulting in “threats or acts of violence directed at any person in a rental unit or housing accommodation or immediate neighbors” or “current and substantial threats to the health, welfare, and safety of other tenants or immediate neighbors.”    

The amendment has evolved, according to Bonds. She tells City Paper that she circulated language to landlord and tenant advocates, along with the Office of the Attorney General, earlier this month to receive feedback, but won’t introduce anything official until the strike force finalizes recommendations and produces a report. The hope is to have legislation for the Council’s legislative meeting on April 6. 

Bonds says she is not interested in creating an exemption to remedy “nuisances.” “The goal was to see what we could come up with that would address the public safety element and the violence we had heard from some of the tenant groups,” she says. “We tried to narrow it even more so, so that it’s very, very clear that the goal is to protect the tenants from each other, quite honestly, and to protect staff on the premises from tenants who are angry and having a hard time.” 

Beth Mellen Harrison, a tenant attorney with the Legal Aid Society, says her group, along with other tenant advocates, opposes any exemptions to the eviction moratorium. (Notably, the strike force is light on tenant representation.)  Seeing as the strike force is likely to recommend some type of exemption, Harrison warns “they just need to be very, very careful about the language.” She notes that landlords have been anxiously awaiting the day that the Council eases the eviction moratorium, so some may try and take advantage of whatever exemption there is. Ultimately, Harrison worries that someone may be evicted after having a mental health crisis and shouting obscenities to their neighbors or may be evicted for hoarding. 

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

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