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

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D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s efforts to cut into D.C.’s blanket eviction moratorium failed yesterday with an amendment largely backed by the body’s most progressive members.

Under Mendelson’s plan, which was part of the Council’s latest public health emergency legislation, anyone who does not qualify for rental assistance under the STAY DC program could be evicted. The chairman’s proposal would have allowed landlords to apply for the federal rental assistance funds on behalf of tenants and required them to provide a judge with proof that they had done so before filing an eviction in court.

STAY DC uses federal funds to pay for up to 12 months of back rent and three months of future rent. But the District must obligate at least $130 million by September or the feds will take the money back. A total of $350 million will be available. Mendelson aimed to use the threat of eviction as a stick against those who’ve fallen behind on rent to access the funds. About 13,000 applications have been received so far, but it’s unclear how many have been approved.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and four others introduced an amendment that nixed Mendelson’s plan and kept the moratorium in place. Allen argued that Council’s special committee on COVID-19 recovery, which he co-chairs with Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, will meet for the first time Friday. Any action to rollback protections before the committee meets is premature, Allen said.

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George listed issues that her constituents encountered when applying for the funds, such as language access, a buggy website, delayed responses, misleading information provided by customer service representatives, and problems uploading supporting documents. She also said the District’s public outreach efforts to inform the public about the available funds is lacking.

Councilmembers Brooke Pinto (Ward 2) and Mary Cheh (Ward 3) echoed Mendelson’s concern about the looming September deadline. Allen assured them that his amendment had no bearing on rental assistance applications. When it became obvious that Allen had enough votes, Mendelson accepted the amendment, effectively killing his plan.

Also attached to the public health emergency bill are changes to a financial control board that will take over management of United Medical Center, a failing hospital in Southeast whose patient volume decreased during the pandemic. The control board takes over if UMC cannot stay within the $15 million subsidy from the District government—a measure Gray put in place in 2019.

But earlier this month, Gray tried to raise the subsidy cap from $15 million to $40 million in order to avoid triggering the control board. The Council rejected his proposal two weeks ago. They approved an increase to $40 million for fiscal year 2021, which the hospital has already blown though, and to $22 million for subsequent years. UMC is scheduled to close in 2024. A new facility built on the St. Elizabeths campus will replace it.

The Council also unanimously approved an emergency bill from Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie that waives income taxes on some COVID-related grants for businesses, such as the Bridge Fund. The legislation only applies to money received in 2021. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman asked that the same exemption be applied to independent contractors and gig workers receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds. McDuffie could not include a PUA waiver in his bill. Silverman previously introduced a bill that exempts PUA payments, which would cost about $30 to $40 million in revenue.

Claimants don’t pay taxes on up to $10,200 of traditional unemployment insurance for individuals and $20,400 for married couples.

On a 10-2-1 vote, the Council approved Monica Palacio for reappointment as director of the Office of Human Rights. Palacio resigned from the job last year to run for an at-large seat on the Council. Bowser renominated her this year despite complaints of a backlog of about 140 cases that have been sitting unresolved for three or more years.

Silverman and Lewis George voted against Palacio’s confirmation, and At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson voted “present.” At-Large Councilmember Robert White tried and failed with emergency legislation to impose a term limit on OHR’s director. He says he’ll try again with a permanent version in the future.

Finally, the Council passed the final amendments to the long awaited Comprehensive Plan, a land use guide. The final tweaks include clarification on the city’s commitment to building “deeply affordable” housing for people who make less than 40 percent of the area median income.

— Mitch Ryals (tips? mryals@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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

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