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

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With the understanding that Mayor Muriel Bowser won’t extend the public health emergency to which dozens of protections are tethered, the Council will consider revising the eviction ban. Under emergency legislation that the Council is considering on Tuesday, landlords could file for eviction in D.C. Superior Court over unpaid rent as early as mid-October so long as they apply for rental assistance on behalf of qualifying tenants.  

The legislation, introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson, delays evictions for nonpayment of rent to buy time for D.C.’s rental assistance program to work. Since launching in mid-April, the rental assistance program called STAY DC has struggled to work as intended. The website was not initially translated into six commonly spoken languages as required by law and can still be inaccessible to non-English speakers. And the application process requires a lot of paperwork and thus can be challenging for some tenants to navigate. Once they manage to submit their application, landlords and tenants wait an average of 45 days to get approved and receive aid, which is longer than other rental assistance programs. 

The last time Mendelson proposed rolling back the city’s eviction moratorium, in mid-May, most of his colleagues worried the proposal was premature given all the issues with STAY DC and voted against him. In the last two months, the Bowser administration made some improvements to STAY DC. Mendelson also convened a working group of councilmembers, landlords, and tenant advocates to revise his proposal, although not all their ideas made it into the final draft that first circulated last Thursday. 

In May, Mendelson introduced the legislation as a means to encourage tenants to apply to STAY DC, a local program that uses federal dollars. If D.C. does not spend $130 million in federal dollars by Sept. 30, the Biden administration will take it back. Now, Mendelson is introducing the legislation related to evictions because he was assured that the mayor does not plan to extend the public health emergency past this month. The mayor’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. (The Council is empowering the mayor to extend a separate emergency tethered to federal dollars for an extra 90 days, which Mendelson expects the executive to take full advantage of because it funds crucial items like hotels for unhoused individuals and coronavirus testing.) He says he is also introducing the revised bill to provide the courts, landlords, and tenants a “soft landing.” 

“If we don’t do something then we will have a more severe consequence,” said Mendelson during a Monday press conference. “If the goal is to reduce the debt and pay their bills with federal assistance, this does a better job of it than anything else I have seen.” He anticipates his colleagues will vote in favor of the legislation. 

Because the expiration date for so many protections is tethered to the expiration date of the public health emergency, the Council will vote on a phased approach to the end of the eviction ban, rent freezes, and utility shutoffs. If the Council did nothing, some protections would end soon. For example, landlords would be able to file most eviction cases as early as late September. According to Mendelson’s office, legislation that the Council will vote on Tuesday afternoon does the following: 

  • Allows landlords to immediately file eviction cases in D.C. Superior Court if their tenant “willfully or wantonly” caused significant damage to their unit or the property. 
  • Requires landlords to wait until Oct. 12 to file eviction cases over nonpayment. (Landlords could start notifying tenants as soon as legislation becomes law.) 
  • Requires landlords to wait until January 2022 to file eviction cases over lease violations. 
  • Bars the filing of any other evictions until Sept. 26. (Landlords need to provide a 30-day notice.) 
  • Prohibits rent increases through December 2021.  
  • Bars utility shut offs until Oct. 12 (plus an extra 90 days for low-income tenants).  

(The Council already voted to let landlords file evictions against individuals who pose a “threat,” so landlords can and will continue to be able to evict these types of tenants.)

Before suing over owed rent, a landlord must apply for STAY DC and notify their tenant 60 days in advance of a pending application so they can start one too. (Eviction notices can happen as soon as the legislation becomes law but must be clear that tenants do not need to vacate the property unless the court orders them to do so and that they have the right to dispute their landlords’ claims before a judge.) A landlord can only file for eviction if a tenant does not complete an application within that time frame, a tenant’s application is denied or leaves a balance of at least $600 and no payment plan is set up within 14 days, or a tenant falls behind on a payment plan by at least $600 or two months’ rent (whichever is more). Under the legislation, tenants have some protections in court. A tenant can dismiss a suit if they demonstrate that the landlord did not apply for rental assistance or offer a payment plan in good faith, a landlord did not provide adequate notice or meet pre-filing requirements as outlined in the legislation, or a tenant has applied and is awaiting approval, payment, or under appeal if they were originally denied help. 

The legislation also makes a few tweaks to STAY DC: It requires the Bowser administration to let landlords apply in accordance with federal guidelines and lets STAY DC cover internet services and security deposits. Already, the Bowser administration is working to have STAY DC dollars cover internet services, the executive told the Council during a conference call on Friday. The legislation did not go far enough in dictating how the Bowser administration should fix STAY DC, some advocates believe.   

“STAY DC has a lot of problems … D.C. landlords and tenants agreed on a lot of this—about the way the portal works, about confusing issues, about documentation requirements that are unnecessary,” says Beth Mellen, director of Legal Aid’s Eviction Defense Project who was a part of the working group. “This bill does only one thing to address that which it says you have to allow landlords to apply. And I think DHS would say to you, as of today, ‘We allow landlords to apply.’”

Mellen appreciates Mendelson and his office for taking a phased approach to the end of the eviction ban, preventing a tidal wave of cases in D.C. Superior Court. While Legal Aid does not advocate for any exemptions to the eviction ban during the public health emergency, the legislation is better than the one from May, she says. However, Mellen says she and others advocated for more fixes to STAY DC, like forcing the executive to allow tenants to self attest to eligibility to the full extent that federal guidance allows or to check existing safety net programs to ensure everyone who should be applying submits an application. Another concern is individuals who apply and receive STAY DC dollars for past rent will still be evicted if they do not think to reapply for future rent too. So the Council should direct the executive to circle back with those individuals as well, some advocates argue. While it’s not common for the Council to be this specific in the implementation of policies and programs, Mellen argues that these are extraordinary circumstances and time is of the essence. 

Like Mellen, Mendelson believes STAY DC needs to work better. He is also concerned that the executive is not getting STAY DC dollars into the hands of landlords and tenants quickly enough, he told reporters on Monday. “[Legislating] doesn’t make them do something they have the authority to do,” added Mendelson. The Council has been using weekly calls with the executive for oversight. But the Bowser administration has not been able to speed up the process for certifying applications or getting payments out the door this past month, despite making more hires. The Bowser administration also seems interested in placing a soft deadline of Aug. 15. on STAY DC, according to the Post—despite tenant advocates arguing that the application presentation and requirements are what’s slowing down the process, not lack of interest in the program.

As of July 7, D.C. has paid over $34 million dollars, $400,765 of which are direct payments to tenants because the landlord did not respond, according to a report from the Department of Human Services, one of the local agencies responsible for STAY DC. That’s just a fifth of what needs to be spent down in use-or-lose-it federal dollars. So far, 28,070 applications have been submitted. The executive is taking an average of 45 days to approve applications, and sends roughly 1,000 applications per week to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer so payments can be sent out—these data points have not changed throughout the month of June, which concerns some lawmakers who wonder whether D.C. can spend the federal dollars ahead of the deadline. Just over 26,500 applications are in draft form, meaning a tenant or landlord started but did not complete one. 

Lawmakers, landlord, and tenant advocates will be the first to admit that the legislation does not address all the concerns that come with ending the eviction ban or problems with STAY DC. The legislation, for example, won’t fully help Ms. Ramirez of Tivoli Gardens Apartments in Columbia Heights. She is among the countless individuals who borrowed money to pay rent. While tenants in her building encouraged her to go on rent strike during the pandemic, lawmakers encouraged tenants to enter into payment plans. So she borrowed money for the first few months of the pandemic. “I regret it,” says Ramirez in Spanish. 

Ramirez applied for the eight months of rent she didn’t pay, but can’t use any STAY DC dollars to cover debt she now owes because of rent. (STAY DC pays for 18 months of owed or upcoming rent.) Ramirez fell behind on rent after being laid off from her restaurant job during the pandemic. Not only did she lose her job because of COVID-19, she contracted the deadly virus and landed in the hospital. She says her 11-year-old daughter helped take care of her. “I would pay the rent with borrowed money,” says Ramirez in Spanish. “I was afraid they would throw me onto the street.”

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