John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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Landlords could file evictions against tenants over unpaid rent later this summer, depending on how the Council votes next week. 

On Tuesday, the Council will vote on emergency legislation that would create an exception to D.C.’s eviction ban—the most expansive exception yet. The moratorium has been in place since the start of the pandemic. Legislators have hesitated to create carve outs when there is still community spread and so many residents are struggling financially. The Council just recently created an exception to the city’s blunt ban, allowing landlords to evict tenants who they deem a threat to health and safety.         

The legislation, introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson, goes further, allowing landlords and property owners to file evictions in DC Superior Court 60 days after they apply for rental assistance on behalf of tenants who owe money, or on July 1 (whichever date is later). Landlords have to notify tenants that they’ve applied for assistance and could face eviction if rent is not paid. Tenants could apply as well, or community-based organizations could apply on their behalf. Tenants could also request a 15-day extension, if they demonstrate they’re making a good faith attempt to apply but are running into difficulties. Mendelson’s hope is that a landlord or tenant secures assistance, making the eviction unnecessary.  

But the proposal hinges on the successful implementation of D.C.’s rental assistance program, STAY DC, a federally funded program that came to be in mid-April. And Mendelson believes STAY DC needs to be improved, as do tenant advocates and landlords. When STAY DC’s website launched, the application portal was not translated. Mendelson also thinks that the website is not very user friendly, and requires more documents of tenants than are necessary under federal provisions (and tenant advocates would agree). Currently, landlords can start but cannot submit an application. Mendelson’s proposal seems to anticipate D.C. moving to a process like Virginia’s rental assistance program, where landlords could submit applications that tenants just need to sign off to make it less burdensome. 

So why is the chairman so sure that landlords and tenants will secure assistance? No one who’s applied has received help yet. 

“I’m not nervous about it because we worked with the executive on this legislation. And I view it as two steps—one is the legislation and the other is the executive getting STAY DC to operate more smoothly,” Mendelson says. “This legislation is as much of reflecting that there will be improvements as it is pressure to make the improvements.”

In a call with the Council Friday morning, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio said STAY DC payments will start going out at the beginning of next week. He assured members that the executive is looking to make improvements to STAY DC and putting more of the onus on landlords and property managers. “We are pressing on making the first payments. We are pressing on incorporating a little bit more flexibility in the application through the new federal guidance,” Falcicchio told Councilmembers. “And then we are also going to continue to promote the program.” He stressed that the technology enhancements will take time.

Mendelson is having the Council vote on the legislation because time is of the essence. The proposal is being voted on alongside D.C.’s public health emergency. On Tuesday, the Council will vote on whether to give the mayor authority to extend the public health emergency to July 25. The eviction moratorium, along with other protections, are tethered to the emergency—meaning the ban expires 60 days after the emergency proclamation ends. “It’s increasingly looking like there is an end to the public health emergency and maybe this pandemic,” says Mendelson. “It’s important to get some procedures in place for the transition as soon as possible, so that everybody knows what the process is and there isn’t something sudden.”   

It’s not completely clear what the mayor’s plans are for the public health emergency. Although, Bowser indicated that the emergency needs to be in effect “as long as people are responding to COVID.” “There are many administrative things tied to the health emergency, including our reimbursements from the federal government,” she told reporters on Monday. “So the health emergency will need to be in place as long as there are various issues.” City Administrator Kevin Donahue also told the Council on Friday that “it is really important” that D.C. stay under a public health emergency.

There is also a deadline for when the D.C. government needs to use the money that seeds STAY DC. The Bowser administration is receiving $352 million in federal dollars to support the rental assistance program, $65 million of which needs to be spent by September. If D.C. does not use the money, the federal government will take it back. Mendelson believes his proposal gives tenants and landlords a sense of urgency to apply for rental assistance. “It makes sense to everybody for this federal money to be used. It’s no cost to the District. It’s no cost to the tenant. It’s no cost to the landlord. How do we get it to be used?” the chairman says.  

Some tenant advocates do not support Mendelson’s proposal. Stomp Out Slumlords, a campaign within the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter that organizes tenants, says its members have been in touch with hundreds but knows no one who’s received assistance. Organizer Stephanie Bastek says the application process is difficult to navigate, requiring advanced computer literacy and taking an hour to complete a single application.  “At one of our buildings, the manager tasked with doing the landlord-side applications needed us to show him how to use it. Why is the city so quick to punish tenants for its own failures?” Bastek writes via email. “Chairman Mendelson’s bill would effectively end the eviction moratorium—if he actually wanted to encourage people to apply for rental assistance, he would make the program easier.”

Beth Mellen, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, agrees, adding that the application process is burdensome for tenants who are already struggling. While she appreciates Mendelson’s efforts to improve STAY DC, Mellen worries that his proposal is premature. She wonders whether the executive could process all the applications they’ve received so far and cut checks, along with making improvements to the application process like having landlords apply, before eviction filings commence. Despite problems with STAY DC, somewhere between 9,000 to 10,000 people have applied for assistance, according to Mellen and Mendelson. 

“I understand the urgency around spending down the money. But the way to fix that is not to put tenants at risk of immediate eviction or sooner eviction, because the problem is not tenants not applying or not being fearful enough of eviction that they’re not applying,” says Mellen. “Tenants don’t want to be evicted. They want to get this money. There are other issues with the website and the program, including the landlords themselves can’t apply. Like let’s fix those [things]. And if the executive isn’t doing it, let’s have the Council do legislation directing.” 

Landlords also question the proposal because STAY DC is not working properly for them. [R]equiring housing providers to apply for the STAY DC program before initiating an eviction filing might seem reasonable IF the STAY DC program was functioning well,” the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington says in a statement via email. “As of today, members report a confluence of issues contributing to the slow distribution of the federal rental assistance monies.” The group that lobbies on behalf of property managers says members report that 30 percent of tenants “refuse” to “engage or cooperate” in the application process. They also take issue with having to waive “an unlimited amount of rent owed” that might not be covered by STAY DC dollars in order to receive rental assistance.

Already, it sounds like one Councilmember—Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis Georgeisn’t interested in voting in favor of Mendeslon’s proposal. The Council’s vote comes before the mayor’s housing strike force releases its report on the eviction moratorium. A group of experts—mostly made up of housing providers and their advocates—had met between February and March to put together a list of recommendations for lawmakers on how to best address the rental housing crisis, including looming evictions. The Council’s vote also comes before a hearing on pandemic recovery, scheduled for May 21, where the public is expected to testify on the eviction moratorium. 

D.C’s current ban on eviction filings just scored a victory in court. The DC Court of Appeals issued a stay on a lower court’s decision that D.C.’s ban is unconstitutional. Meaning the lower court’s decision will not immediately take effect, and landlords cannot file for evictions so long as the Council’s moratorium is law. 

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

This post has been updated to clarify that the Council’s hearing on pandemic recovery related to evictions is May 21 not May 26. The May 26 one is about education.

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

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