Sign on building advocating to cancel rent in D.C.
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The Council voted to allow landlords to evict tenants who pose a “threat to the health and safety” during the public health emergency, but lawmakers wouldn’t permit landlords to increase rent on vacant units.  

The bill, introduced by At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, makes an exception to D.C.’s year-long eviction moratorium. If signed into law, the bill would let landlords initiate the eviction process so long as the tenant “presents a current and substantial threat to the health and safety” of tenants, their guests, or any agency or employee of the owner. A tenant could also be evicted if they have an illegal firearm, act violently, threaten, or assault someone at the property. Evictions can only be executed if the court substantiates the allegations. The bill requires a second vote before it is sent to the mayor.   

Lawmakers near-unanimously passed the bill on Tuesday during a legislative meeting because most believed it balanced the wishes of landlords—who’ve been asking the Council for months now to ease the moratorium—and tenant advocates—who want to maintain a blunt ban during the public health emergency and 60 days thereafter. The bill aims to inform tenants of their rights and connect them with social services, although these sections aren’t very specific. Any eviction notice has to tell tenants they do not have to vacate their home unless a court orders them to, and a copy of the notice has to be sent to the Office of the Tenant Advocate. Any family facing eviction must be connected to “youth education, social services, and other resources” and any person with mental health issues must be offered alternative housing before the eviction is carried out.

The Council felt compelled to carve out a health and safety exception because many believe police aren’t always able to enforce the law. At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, for example, offered one case where a tenant fired a gun into the hallway, next to a family’s unit. Police weren’t able to arrest anyone once they arrived because they found no gun. 

The lone vote against the bill: Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George. “I understand the intent of the legislation and I agree that everyone should feel safe in their home … My issue is coming from practical implications,” said George. 

“Evictions impact entire families or groups of people who live in a home with one lease, so not just one person who is alleged to be a threat to public safety,” she continued. “I’m worried that children, elderly family members, people with disabilities, and others could lose their homes during the pandemic as a result of the actions of someone else in their household.” 

George worried that tenants would not actually be connected to social services. She also worried that people will be evicted because they do not show up to court. (A DCist investigation found hundreds of instances where landlords failed to adequately inform tenants when they need to go to court to defend themselves.) 

Attorney General Karl Racine also expressed concerns regarding Bonds’ bill. In a letter to Bonds, he warned that the bill as written “may subject the [eviction] process to abuse and result in the District’s most vulnerable residents losing their housing.” Specifically, Racine took issue with the bill not requiring the DC Superior Court to apply the health and safety exception before the eviction complaint was filed. 

“This could result in mass filings based on tenuous facts, with devastating consequences for District tenants,” the letter reads. “These burdens will fall hardest on the District’s Black and brown residents, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and are more likely to experience eviction.” The worry is that landlords will be tempted to file evictions against tenants that are behind on rent and they’ll self-evict. Racine also named other remedies for landlords available under current law. 

Bonds’ legislation was informed by the mayor’s rental housing “strike force,” which has been criticized for being stacked with members who represent the interests of landlords and developers. The group just held its last meeting March 26. The group has not yet released its final report, which is expected to include a recommendation on what to do about the eviction moratorium. The few tenant advocates on the strike force expressed concerns about any carveouts during the public health emergency because community spread is still high and only about a fifth of residents are at least partially vaccinated. Research suggests that eviction bans have saved lives; counties with moratoriums had nearly 4 percent fewer infections and 11 percent fewer deaths.

“The public health crisis is not over,” said Eva Rosen, with Georgetown University, during the March 26 meeting. “A ‘threat’ is often in the eye of the beholder and not always clear,” added Marian Siegel of Housing Counseling Services.

A few members of the group—including Siegel, Randi Marshall of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, Josh Bernstein of Bernstein Management, and Ralph Boyd of SOME—were tasked with writing specific language for the exception to the eviction moratorium. Bonds’ bill includes many of the smaller group’s recommendations, particularly around definitions. For example, the bill leans on existing law to define “threat.” However, the bill does not make explicit that the exception only applies to cases filed after the law goes into effect, as the group of four recommended. (Landlords have been filing cases during the moratorium.) Although, practically speaking landlords would have to in order to fulfill the requirements of the law around eviction notices. (Bonds expects fewer than 50 cases to meet the health and safety standard.) Nor does the bill increase funds for legal assistance or update eligibility so that tenants can more easily access help when eviction proceedings begin again.  

Meanwhile, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto’s bill on D.C.’s ban on rent increases failed, with seven votes against and six in favor. The bill would have permitted rent increases on vacant units during the public health emergency, which goes until May 20. It would also extend the ban on rent increases for tenants experiencing hardship from 30 days after the public health emergency ends to one year thereafter. The bill is one of Pinto’s big pieces of legislation, and she had the support of Chairman Phil Mendelson

Members who voted no to the legislation include Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), George, Charles Allen (Ward 6), Trayon White (Ward 8), Robert White (At-Large), Elissa Silverman (At-Large), and Henderson.  

“We already have an affordable housing crisis, so how does this help our affordable housing crisis?” said George of vacancy increases. She worried that allowing these to resume would hurt tenants in search of housing, and incentivize landlords to pressure tenants out. Some tenant advocates agree with her.

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