Rent Freezes? Emergency Subsidies? Coronavirus Sparks Calls To Protect Renters About a third of Washingtonians rent their homes. Do they need special protections amid the national health crisis?
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Rent Freezes? Emergency Subsidies? Coronavirus Sparks Calls To Protect Renters

Renters are more likely to lack a financial safety net than homeowners — that's why they need special protections amid coronavirus, advocates say. Ally Schweitzer/WAMU hide caption

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Ally Schweitzer/WAMU

Leaders and tenant advocates across the Washington region are calling on officials to step up protections for renters amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation with some relief for renters Tuesday, but the D.C. Tenants Union wants lawmakers and Mayor Muriel Bowser to do more. They're calling on the city to funnel more emergency dollars to at-risk renters and prohibit landlords from raising rents for two years, arguing that tenants could face long-term hardship after being unable to earn income during the crisis.

Similar calls are escalating in Maryland and Virginia. While Maryland's legislative session rushes to adjourn early in response to the mounting public health crisis, two state lawmakers are circulating a petition demanding flexibility on rent payments and an extension on leases set to expire during the emergency.

Advocates in Virginia — where evictions are staggeringly common — have been making policy recommendations to state officials. Alexandria's mayor has asked landlords to "ease burdens" on tenants affected by the virus.

[Read the latest updates about coronavirus in our region here]

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About a third of Washington-area residents rent their homes, according to Census data, and advocates say renters are more likely than homeowners to lack a financial safety net.

"Many renters are low-wage workers or seniors on fixed incomes. If any of that is disrupted, they're going to have a major challenge being able to pay rent," says Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance. "We're going to have to look at subsidizing the rental housing community — the renters themselves — so that they can stay in their homes."

What's Already Been Done To Help Renters

Renters at risk of eviction in Maryland, Virginia and the District can breathe a little easier, as all of those jurisdictions have taken action to postpone evictions proceedings during the pandemic.

Monday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan blocked Maryland courts from ordering the eviction of tenants who can prove they're unable to pay rent because of the virus. D.C. Superior Court suspended evictions of tenants and foreclosed homeowners last week, through May 1. In Virginia on Monday, the chief justice of the state's supreme court declared a judicial emergency through April 6, directing all district and circuit courts to suspend nonessential proceedings.

Though some tenants facing eviction proceedings in Virginia may still have to go before a judge if their court deems certain evictions "essential," says Christie Marra with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. In those instances, local sheriffs may be the last protection that at-risk tenants have.

"Sheriffs do have the authority to say, 'In this crisis, we are not going to put people out on the street,'" Marra says.

The court actions don't restrict landlords from initiating new evictions, however — they only delay evictions proceedings until court operations return to normal. That's one reason advocates are calling for additional steps to help renters experiencing financial hardship.

Rent Freezes And Emergency Funds For Renters

The D.C. Tenants Union is demanding District officials take two main steps to assist renters during the pandemic: Freeze rent increases for two years and dramatically increase emergency public funds for at-risk tenants.

"While removing the threat of eviction in the short term will do much to protect D.C. tenants, without more expansive protections the city will face a crisis when the state of emergency expires," organizers with the union wrote in a statement. "Tenants in arrears will face a wave of evictions as courts reopen, and it is unlikely that the city's economic situation will improve enough to compensate for their losses."

The union wants the city to protect residents against rising rents, under the assumption that some landlords will attempt to shore up any losses during the eviction moratorium "by raising rents, driving out lower-paying tenants and filling vacant apartments with wealthier renters," the statement says.

Tenant advocates are also urging city leaders to double the District's Emergency Rental Assistance Program budget, or ERAP, to $15.8 million.

Advocates wanted council members to include those two provisions in emergency legislation that unanimously passed Tuesday, but they were not successful. Union representatives say they will continue pushing for additional tenant protections, including a rent freeze.

"The current emergency legislation does not go nearly far enough," says Stephanie Bastek, an organizer with the union.

Rent freezes are unpopular among landlords, who point out that the pandemic hasn't erased their financial obligations. A temporary ban on rent increases could render property owners unable to pay their mortgages, unless they win a forbearance from their lender or Congress passes legislation to help them. Landlords often have employees — maintenance staff, managers, leasing agents — they need to pay, too.

"All of that money comes from rent," says Randi Marshall with the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington (AOBA).

If anything, Marshall says, landlords want to keep people in their buildings. "It doesn't help our business model to have no tenants," Marshall says. "We want to tell tenants, tenant associations [and] advocates ... to reach out to your housing provider and let them know what your concerns are. Our folks are ready to sit down and try to figure [this] out."

AOBA agrees with the D.C. Tenants Union that the city should direct more funds to its Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which pays overdue rent, late fees and security deposits on behalf of low-income renters at risk of losing their homes.

Such subsidies "not only give peace of mind to tenants, but [they give] peace of mind to the apartment buildings owners themselves because they know they're getting a payment," Marshall says.

Evolving Needs

It's difficult to project exactly what low- to moderate-income tenants will need as the health crisis unfolds, some leaders say, and today's proposed solutions may not be enough to solve tomorrow's problems.

"We need to monitor all of the impacts on our families and our communities, especially economically," says Maryland state Del. Jheanelle Wilkins. The Democrat from Montgomery County is one of two delegates calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to enact more policies to help at-risk renters across the state.

Some assistance may be on the way from the federal government. Congress is currently mulling House-backed legislation that expands paid leave, gives a boost to food banks and injects dollars into state unemployment insurance funds, among other provisions. The bill is actively undergoing changes, but it could indirectly benefit renters if signed into law.

The White House is also proposing a national stimulus package that could be worth as much as $1 trillion, if not more.

On the state and local level, Matt Losak with the Montgomery County Renters Alliance says he hopes officials are taking a long view. The economic harm that comes from the pandemic, he says, will play out for months, if not years. Renters are uniquely vulnerable, sometimes just by virtue of where they live.

"Multifamily communities present a unique possible situation for contracting the coronavirus because of the proximity of homes, because of shared community spaces like elevators and community rooms," Losak says. "We have large apartment communities with seniors and people who are vulnerable to the virus living in them. Renters have to think about their neighbors as well as themselves during this crisis."

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