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As the public health emergency over the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end, the D.C. Council unanimously voted to phase out tenant protections including bans on evictions, utility shut offs, and rent freezes.
D.C. lawmakers had been fiercely debating how to end tenant protections, and ultimately landed on a phased approach. One of the strongest protections is the eviction moratorium, which has been in place since the spring of 2020. Instead of lifting the ban in one fell swoop, the Council voted on Tuesday to allow landlords to file evictions in D.C. Superior Court in phases as a way to avoid a tidal wave of court filings. The legislation, which passed on an emergency basis and thus required just one vote, is now awaiting Mayor Muriel Bowser’s signature before becoming law.
“What we’re doing is trying to create more of a soft landing,” Chairman Phil Mendelson told reporters on Monday.
Mendelson’s colleagues profusely thanked him and his staff (namely, Blaine Stum) for their work on the legislation, believing it struck the right balance between keeping tenants housed and getting landlords their money. The Council felt compelled to act because Bowser does not plan to extend the public health emergency, to which the expiration dates for all these tenant protections are tethered. Many protections would end 60 days after the emergency expires, which is July 26.
“The mayor does not want to extend the public health emergency, so we are not extending that authority,” Mendelson said during Tuesday’s legislative meeting. (Bowser’s spokesperson says the mayor will probably make an announcement on the public health emergency next week.)
So what exactly does the eviction legislation do?
It can be confusing, so City Paper made a graphic that explains the phased approach with key dates to remember:
The wild card is D.C. Superior Court, and how prepared the courts are to carry out the legislation. “The DC Courts are unable to say when the our civil division will begin hearing cases involving eviction cases, but the courts are doing all that we can to ensure all appropriate and compassionate steps are taken so that all parties are heard and those that are in need of assistance are provided the help and resources that they may need,” says a court spokesperson.
It’s hard to know for certain when executed evictions will start up again. Eviction filings are more common than executed evictions, or when tenants are actually ordered to leave their home. (Landlords often file evictions against tenants as a means of debt collection.) It’s a very involved process and requires the U.S. Marshals Service to carry out the eviction orders from judges. Beth Mellen, director of Legal Aid’s Eviction Defense Project, suspects executed evictions will start in September.
The other wild card is STAY DC, the city’s rental and utility assistance program. Landlords can only file evictions over unpaid rent in mid-October if they apply for STAY DC and tell tenants 60 days ahead of time about the owed money and to apply to STAY DC, but tenants never apply or they are denied and do not appeal. Landlords can also file for evictions if they prove to a judge their tenants do not qualify for STAY DC. Basically, tenants can try and protect themselves against eviction filings if they complete a STAY DC application.
There are plenty of problems with STAY DC that the Bowser administration and Council are actively working on correcting so that landlords can get their money and eviction filings become moot. One amendment to Mendelson’s legislation that aims to ensure the success of the program came from At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson. The amendment would require the executive to reach out to tenants enrolled in social services programs by Aug. 9 and tell them about STAY DC.
Another tenant protection the Council voted on relates to debt collection. Because the ban on debt collection is set to expire with the end of the public health emergency, Mendelson worked with the Office of the Attorney General to pass separate emergency legislation that addresses that and goes even further. Consumer advocates have been calling for reform to D.C.’s decades-old debt collection law given the rise in lawsuits and reports of questionable behaviors from collectors, as reported by City Paper in Feb. 2020. Mendelson’s legislation—which passed unanimously—addresses many of advocates’ concerns, including expanding the scope of protections to all personal, family, medical, or household debts; prohibiting creditors and collectors from calling at unreasonable hours or with unreasonable frequency; and stopping “zombie debt” (old debt that companies try to revive).
What do folks think of the legislation?
Landlord and tenant advocates take issue with with the parts of the legislation related to evictions and rent increases. Almost immediately after the Council voted in favor of the legislation, the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington sent a press release that said: “We are deeply concerned.”
“[T]he changes made to the final version of the bill go well beyond addressing providing relief to residents struggling financially due to COVID and dramatically alter Landlord-Tenant law well into 2022,” said the press release from the lobbying group for city’s large landlords. (The lobbying group for the city’s smaller landlords is also not pleased with the legislation.)
Tenant advocacy groups are also worried about the return of evictions, especially because tenants do not have a right to an attorney during court proceedings (although free legal aid is available at the courthouse). Those with concerns cite the problems with STAY DC. Some tenant advocates also just fundamentally oppose evictions. “[W]hy do there need to be any evictions at all?” tweeted Stomp Out Slumlords, a campaign through the Democratic Socialists of America that’s been advocating for rent cancellation all pandemic. “Evictions in DC have been banned since March 2020. Landlords have not starved. The city has not burned.”
Lawmakers are very aware of the criticisms. “We are getting a lot of emails telling us to vote ‘No,’ and I just want to say I think that would be a big, big mistake both for tenants and for landlords,” said At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman ahead of the vote. “The legislation is not perfect, but I think it is very thoughtful and reasonable, and it is a way to avoid a surge of evictions.”
The Council mostly heeded the advice of the mayor’s “Rental Housing Strike Force,” a group of government officials, landlords, and tenant advocates that were tasked with deciding how to end the eviction moratorium. The group of experts recommended a phased approach to ending the eviction moratorium. Officials have not carried out all of the recommendations. For example, one of the recommendations is to create an eviction diversion pilot program, which would happen in partnership with landlords, tenants, legal service providers, and the judiciary. (This idea is also endorsed by the White House.) “The program would facilitate pre-filing access for tenants and housing providers to a range of eviction prevention services to resolve disputes that can lead to eviction,” the strike force’s report says.
On a separate, more personal note: This will be my last newsletter for Washington City Paper. I will no longer be working at the paper. My last day is July 15. Friday’s newsletter will go into detail about my replacement. I just want to thank all of you for reading and engaging! Keep supporting local news and consider becoming a City Paper member!
—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
This post has been updated to include that tenants can protect themselves against eviction filings by completing a STAY DC application.
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