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

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Antonio, a D.C. busboy, had no work after the pandemic forced some restaurants to lay off employees. For nearly a year, Antonio’s household of four had no income; his wife, Irma, 54, has been on dialysis for five years. The family had to scrounge up whatever money they could while accumulating more than a year of rental debt.

“It’s very difficult because imagine: We’re worried about not working, worried because I’m sick,” Irma says. “And then powerless with the pandemic because we don’t know if the rent can be paid. We are worried about the rent because they can evict us.”

This past spring their landlord helped the couple apply for financial help from the D.C. government program STAY DC, established in April to help renters and housing providers cover expenses. They requested help catching up on the rent owed dating back to November 2020 and were approved for five months of rental assistance. The money, however, never came. 

“They told us that, yes, they sent it to us,” Antonio, 55, says.

Months later, the check still hasn’t come. This fall, they applied again. If approved, the rent on their Northwest D.C. apartment will be covered through January. The application is pending, along with the question of whether they’ll be able to pay rent or face eviction in the new year. One advocate says that for lower-income residents, a wave of forthcoming pandemic-related evictions could accelerate the gentrification process, supercharging the decades-long trend of the District becoming increasingly affluent and less diverse.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s April 12 press release announced the District’s allocation of $352 million to STAY DC—Stronger Together by Assisting You—and other emergency rental assistance initiatives. Until the Oct. 27 deadline, residents could apply for financial support for accumulated housing and utility expenses from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Residents with an annual household income at or below 80 percent of the District’s area median income could apply and use the money to pay rent for the upcoming three months or unpaid rent dating as far back as April 1, 2020, for a maximum of 18 months of assistance. As of Dec. 8, STAY DC distributed around $222 million in funds, according to Richard Livingstone, deputy chief of staff and communications director of D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Out of the 61,283 tenant and 39,017 housing provider applications, 54,105 tenants and 24,127 housing providers received funding, Livingstone says, adding that all the federal Emergency Rental Assistance money is expected to be distributed after the pending applications—860 from tenants and 4,225 from housing providers—are processed.  

The District was a leading distributor of emergency rental funds, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury. The process for applying to STAY DC, however, was riddled with system malfunctions, poor website translations, and complex application requirements, according to applicants and advocates at several nonprofit organizations that helped residents apply. This was exacerbated by low internet adoption rates and a lack of digital fluency among the people the city was trying to help: low income residents in danger of homelessness due to lost income during the pandemic. Many who did receive assistance say the STAY DC payments weren’t a fix-all solution, as they still face debt and possible eviction in January.    

Currently, evictions filed after the pandemic public health emergency was declared are prohibited unless there’s a public safety problem or property damage. A tenant can also be evicted post-PHE if there’s unpaid rent and the landlord meets requirements like filling out the landlord segment of the STAY DC application or completing an application for their tenant, according to the Summary of Rental Housing Provisions. In January, District landlords can resume filing for evictions under the pre-pandemic rules, according to the Public Emergency Extension and Eviction and Utility Moratorium Phasing Emergency Amendment Act of 2021.

“We’re all bracing for the worst,” Daniel del Pielago, organizing director of Empower DC, says.

While the pandemic impacted many residents, for Norma, a Ward 1 resident who received STAY DC funds and helped dozens of Spanish-speaking neighbors apply, it hit home twice. Her husband, a sign technician, contracted COVID-19 in spring 2020. In summer 2020, he tested positive again for the virus, leaving him unable to work for several months. While he’s returned to work, he battles rheumatoid arthritis, a lingering effect of the virus. Her 14-year-old son also got COVID-19 in spring 2020. Norma’s pandemic experience isn’t unique for D.C.’s Latinx community.

This year, Trabajadores Unidos, a local nonprofit that helps immigrants and low-income workers, released a report detailing the pandemic’s impact on Latinx Washingtonians between May and December of 2020. Information was collected from over 400 low-income immigrant workers who sought financial assistance from Trabajadores Unidos. The report says that the COVID-19 positivity rate for Latinx individuals was high compared to the Latinx population percentage, citing D.C. government data.

While 11.3 percent of D.C.’s population identifies as Latino, according to census data, in 2020, the D.C. government reported on the first of each month that out of all its COVID-19 cases, Latinos patients accounted for 26 percent in June, 29 percent in July, 26 percent in August and September, 25 percent in October and November and 24 percent in December.

“With Latino positivity rates clearly more than doubling that 11 percent figure at a steady rate throughout 2020, it is clear that Latino populations were disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s early stages,” the Trabajadores Unidos report says. 

Due to this disproportionate impact on Latinx and other vulnerable residents, Norma was one of many volunteers, nonprofit advocates, and D.C. government workers who assisted with applications. She spent hours each week pouring over the documents, explaining them in Spanish, adding required documentation, and trying to understand the program, a process she says is difficult. After successfully navigating the challenging application, Norma helped fill out 40 more, including helping Antonio and Irma upload supporting documents to their application. 

The District hosted in-person application assistance events multiple times a week, and “the Mayor’s Community Affairs offices and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development made their offices available as in person application assistance sites for several months towards the end of the program,” Livingstone says. 

Empower DC, a grassroots organization, partnered with Housing Counseling Services to provide additional assistance to over 200 low-income residents through pop-up events, supplying laptops, scanners, and application support. Del Pielago says lack of a device and internet connection were the biggest obstacles for the people Empower DC helped. He also saw a lot of computer illiteracy; applicants didn’t know a unique username and password had to be created.  

According to Bowser’s April 12 press release, the STAY DC website is “a user-friendly portal that provides a seamless and accessible process.” Norma, however, had a front row seat to the difficulties.

“When STAY DC was introduced, we all thought it was salvation, but it wasn’t because it was very difficult,” Norma says, citing its many errors. 

This included residents not having an email address and not knowing how to create one and not knowing how to take a photo of documents to upload to the site. Too often, the system didn’t recognize attached documents, making it necessary to upload them multiple times, delaying the review process. 

Norma helped Elisa, a restaurant worker, after she filled out the initial application with her 18-year-old daughter who, despite speaking English, didn’t fully understand how to answer all of the application questions. As a result, Elisa, 39, received a $0.00 approval. When Norma learned about the problem, she started calling STAY DC. Despite spending a lot of time on the phone, Norma says she wasn’t able to help correct the error. Elisa’s experience raises the question of how many other STAY DC applicants faced similar errors.

A main application issue was language. To hasten its release and minimize cost, the site was translated using machine translations similar to Google Translate, as indicated by the “Powered by Google Translate” on the top of the page, making the translations “very confusing and incorrect,” Beth Mellen, a supervising attorney in the Housing Law Unit and the director of Legal Aid’s Eviction Defense Project for the District, says.

While machine translations like Google Translate work for basic concepts, it doesn’t for entire websites, Mellen says, adding that she understands the Department of Human Services’ urgency with the program launch but hoped these issues would be addressed later. 

“The things that troubled us were things where we felt like we brought them up. They did have some time to work on them and we didn’t see a lot of progress over the months,” Mellen says, noting that their concerns weren’t fully addressed.

However, Livingstone says that while the application, resources, and website were translated into six languages using a machine translation service. “Over time, we have worked to have certified linguists professionally translate all elements of the program manually, beginning with the application, then the resources, and finally the website,” Livingstone says, adding that STAY DC also had a call center with multilingual staff to assist residents.  

Since translations were available, “we believe all community members who desired to apply had the opportunity to do so,” Livingstone says. This view contrasts with what advocates and volunteers like Mellen and Norma saw firsthand while working with community members. 

From Mellen’s experience, she says the top two reasons people were denied STAY DC funds were failure to document lease and income. Documenting a lease was difficult since in D.C., tenants don’t have to have a current written lease; as long as they originally had one, it remains in effect, Mellen says. 

While Livingstone says self attestation forms were available on the website for proof of rental obligation, financial impact, housing impact, and income qualification since the program launch, advocates and applicants say that was not their understanding. Uncertainty about applying if you live with multiple people in a house, if your name isn’t on the lease, and if you don’t have proof of income persisted throughout the application process.

“Many undocumented workers live in crowded houses or apartments, one-room situations, or basements with other families,” according to the Trabajadores Unidos report. With low salaries and a high cost of living in D.C., many residents live with multiple people. 

“Someone leases the house and everyone else lives there, but the other five or six or seven don’t have a contract with the house itself,” Celestino Barrera, the immigration lead and organizer of Trabajadores Unidos, says. 

Documenting income or job loss due to the pandemic can be difficult for low-income workers paid in cash, often leaving it to the cooperation of the previous employer to provide those verification documents, Mellen says.

While STAY DC was open to residents no matter their citizenship status, the application included a space for a social security number, a deterrent for some undocumented residents even though is was not required. The mere existence of that space creates fear for those who are undocumented or live with someone who is, Mellen says. She recommended it be removed or that a more clear disclosure be provided, which she says didn’t happen.

While the application deadline passed, Barrera and del Pielago say STAY DC highlighted the ongoing struggle of some residents.

“COVID, STAY [DC] and all of this have just really put into even more of a laser focus that this city is unaffordable,” del Pielago says. “People of color have a very difficult time staying and staying above water in this city.”

The Latino population likely won’t just be disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but coming evictions as well, Mellen and del Pielago believe. Mellen would expand this to all people of color, citing the most recent Census Household Pulse Survey taken from September to October that shows people of color make up more than nine out of 10 people in the District who have fallen behind on rent.

“If they are displaced from the District of Columbia, it will be too late,” Mellen says. “It will be too late in terms of preserving the rich character of the District, the history, the families who’ve been here for generations.”

Even STAY DC recipients will continue feeling the disproportionate impact through lack of work, nearly two years of debt, and potential eviction in January.

Elmer Ventura, a Northwest D.C. resident who drove a limo before the pandemic, hasn’t worked for almost two years. He gets by in part thanks to the food stamps his mother, who he lives with, receives, along with help from family and small jobs here and there. The STAY DC assistance only made a dent in what he owes. 

“We’re talking about close to a year of pandemic, not paying apartment, and then, I have loans because I have to spend on … my car, I have to eat, shoes, clothes, everything,” Ventura says.

Ventura owes a lot—more than $30,000, he says. While he received around $16,000 from STAY DC, he says he still has more than $5,000 in rental debt alone. 

“There’s still a lot of people in great need,” del Pielago says. “A lot of folks are in this kind of somewhat nebulous area where they have not received an eviction notice yet but are back in their rent, so they know that something’s gonna happen.”

Livingstone says DHS, alongside community based organizations, has been working on outreach and assistance through programs like STAY DC, as well as legal assistance, for current and upcoming evictions.  

The D.C. government reported on Oct. 14, “A combined 97% of those receiving STAY DC rental assistance so far make less than 50% MFI ($64,500 for a family of four) and we expect this trend to continue for remaining applications.” But Mellen and del Pielago are concerned that the government didn’t do enough to identify and help those at greatest risk, focusing on income instead of assets and other factors. To help those most in need, Livingstone says that events were offered in areas of need for application assistance but didn’t comment on any application vetting. By failing to fully vet the program, Mellen and del Pielago say that despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent, many people of color, immigrants, and other vulnerable residents may still face 2022 evictions, leading to more gentrification and a culturally impoverished D.C. 

Mellen recommends an analysis of the data to enhance distribution of future funds—which may be released in 2022—including looking into recipients’ monthly rent and number of people per household compared to rent. 

Del Pielago called STAY DC a “double edged sword:” while it’s great that the city distributed funds before the federal government took it back—the U.S. Treasury announced a reallocation of excess funds this fall—a lens to identify need and equity was likely needed. While January isn’t far off, more can be done, including local government acting, he says.

“Our local government really has to stand up and figure out a way to ensure that people aren’t evicted,” del Pielago says. “That could be extending the eviction moratorium, providing funding to pay rent for folks who need that help.”

This story was produced by Hola Cultura’s Storytelling Program for Experiential Learning, which brings together young people between 16 and 25 and the organization’s professional staff to produce stories and special projects for Hola Cultura’s online magazine. Editorial fellow Shanna Kelly wrote and researched the story with additional research by Hola Cultura’s Society & Culture Storytelling Team.