A view of The Woodner, an apartment building where some tenants are trying to organize.
Panfilo Contreras Morales cannot afford to pay his rent right now.
Morales, who has lived with his family in the 16th Street NW apartment building The Woodner since 2008, lost his restaurant job due to coronavirus closures almost two months ago.
"We barely have money to pay for food," he says. "A lot of people are in the same situation. We cannot afford to pay rent and the very little help that came from the government, a lot of people are using it to buy groceries or food for their family."
Since the pandemic struck, the D.C. Council has passed a series of emergency bills that strengthen tenant protections during the coronavirus crisis. While the public health emergency order is in effect, evictions are prohibited, as are late fees and rent increases. (The federal CARES Act also bans eviction filings for all federally backed rental units, such as Section 8 and public housing units.)
But one of the first steps a landlord takes to initiate eviction proceedings is called an eviction complaint, an action that was initially allowed during the public health emergency. Property owners filed more than 1,100 eviction complaints in D.C. Landlord Tenant Court since March 17, according to court records.
On Tuesday, D.C. lawmakers suspended the filing of eviction complaints until 60 days after the emergency order ends. It is unclear what that means for the complaints that have already been filed, though advocates are hopeful they will be voided.
But these measures still only serve to slow down the eviction process. Tenants like Morales wonder what will happen when the protections expire and they still owe back rent. How will they catch up on thousands of dollars in payments?
"Whatever the date is the council says the dam breaks, the dam breaks," says Beth Mellen Harrison, supervising attorney in D.C. Legal Aid's housing law unit. "I think, unfortunately, there's going to be a flood."
While more than 3,400 people have signed a petition to cancel rent and mortgages in the District during the health crisis, in line with a proposal introduced by progressive members of Congress, it appears unlikely the D.C. Council would take such action. Instead, a provision passed this week requires residential landlords with five or more units to establish repayment plans for tenants facing financial hardship.
"How can you negotiate a rent payment plan when there's no money?" ask Veronica Mosqueda, a senior tenant organizer at the Latino Economic Development Council, a nonprofit that focuses in part on housing. "Tenants are trying to figure out where their power can be right now."
Before the pandemic struck, Morales had planned to move out of The Woodner, which is D.C.'s largest residential complex under one roof. He says he has grown increasingly frustrated with rats and cockroaches and what he believes is declining care of the building.
Morales claims those issues have gotten even worse during the public health crisis. "They're not disinfecting the areas where people walk the most — the laundry room, the lobby. Trash is piling up and they're not picking it up," he says, adding that residents were not informed of a COVID-19 death in the building. Four other Woodner tenants shared similar observations with DCist.
Additionally, tenants say that residents have had different experiences with management — some have been able to discuss payment plans, whereas others, like Morales, say they haven't been able to get in touch. All of these issues have prompted tenants to start banding together to demand changes.
Morales is one of more than two dozen tenants at The Woodner who are organizing with the D.C. Tenants Union, an organization founded last summer to mobilize renters to form tenant associations and gain more leverage over landlords. They are trying to seek concessions from The Woodner Company, which owns the building. So far, upwards of 70 residents have signed a petition calling for rent cancellation.
Woodner tenants say intimidation from management is preventing them from reaching out to many of the approximately 2,000 people who reside there. Management has been ripping down flyers that organizers post in the elevators and other common spaces, according to resident Josmary Velasquez.
The Woodner's general manager, Joe Milby, refutes claims of inadequate cleaning, lack of disclosure, unresponsiveness to tenants and intimidation, as well as broader issues with vermin.
"The information you have been provided is incorrect," he tells DCist over email. "The Woodner has been following the requirements of District of Columbia law and the recommendations of the District with respect to addressing the current health emergency." He declined to comment further.
Mary, a Woodner resident since February, says that " it is disingenuous to say that doing the bare minimum of what they're required to do by law is enough." She asked to only be identified by her first name because she fears retaliation from management.
Lowell Hickman, an Eckington resident and organizer with the D.C. Tenants Union, says that retaliation is a frequent consequence of organizing. "We get threatened and taken to court, and it happens repeatedly," he says. "That's the hard part of it."
So far, rent cancellation has not become a reality for District tenants on a wide scale.
At Tivoli Gardens in Columbia Heights, about 75 residents recently organized as a tenant association, calling for rent cancellation and to bargain as a unit with management company The Donaldson Group.
But this week, The Donaldson Group told the group over email that it would only work with tenants individually.
"Every tenant's situation is different, so we will not negotiate with the group as a whole. Instead, we will address each individual tenant's needs personally and on an individual basis," wrote senior vice president Jennifer Casey. "Under no circumstances are we in a position to waive rent and any time spent on that request is not productive."
Emilie Fairbanks, a local lawyer who has practiced in D.C. Landlord Tenant Court for 15 years, says her clients — largely small landlords in the District — wouldn't be able to pay their mortgages if rent were cancelled.
"All rent cancellation is shifting the burden of who is paying rent" to landlords, she says.
Fairbanks adds that landlords have every incentive to keep existing tenants housed, especially during an economic downturn: "A lot of people have this concept that everyone wants to evict their tenants and that's just not true."
But she is concerned about what D.C. Landlord Tenant Court, which hears eviction cases, will look like when it reopens, and she's not alone. It's considered a high-volume court, meaning it generally hears about 200 cases each day, and it was a crowded place before the pandemic forced its closure.
In 2016, landlords filed about 27,000 eviction cases, resulting in 4,500 households getting evicted in D.C, according to the most recent data available from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
"Putting 200 or, potentially, 400 or more litigants in a courthouse is still going to be, I think, untenable when the courts open," says Rebecca Lindhurst, the managing attorney at nonprofit Bread for the City's legal clinic. While there has been discussion about using technology to hold virtual hearings, she's concerned about how to ensure that tenants have access. Currently, if tenants miss a court date, a judgment is automatically entered against them.
Moreover, tenant attorneys also have an office at the courthouse to meet and assist renters, and it's unclear how that process would play out virtually.
Harrison, of D.C. Legal Aid, says that she expects the court to make public announcements soon about what the court will look like when it reopens and the pace of cases it will hear.
The backlog at the court already means that the earliest dates for new cases are in July, and that is assuming the public health emergency ends on May 15 (Mayor Muriel Bowser has signaled that she is likely to extend the order).
"There are six weeks of cases that are going to be heard that have nothing to do with anyone who stopped paying their rent in April," Fairbanks says.
But though the court is not hearing eviction cases right now, the D.C. Attorney General's Office has been enforcing the new protections for tenants.
"The bulk of the complaints we're getting from tenants center around being threatened with wrongful eviction," says Jen Berger, the head of the office's social justice section. Also called "self-help eviction," the term refers to any eviction that happens outside the court system.
Wrongful evictions are illegal, full-stop — pandemic or not. But Berger says the office has seen a spike in that activity among informal housing arrangements, like renting a room in a house, especially in the immigrant community.
She says the main complaint against large landlords thus far has been illegal rent increases that have been enacted during the health crisis. "We are pursuing these activities seriously," Berger says.
All of the lawyers DCist spoke to recommended that tenants speak to their landlords about concerns about paying rent, and to reach out to advocacy groups or tenant hotlines if they have questions.
Advocates are hoping that public officials in the city will take the opportunity to address the inequalities in the system that the coronavirus crisis has laid bare, and establish financial payments that allow renters to repay landlords and avoid evictions, which can jumpstart a series of other disruptions for tenants. Evictions increase the risk of homelessness and lead to greater housing instability in the long run, among other issues, a 2018 study found.
Harrison says that the council will need to seriously consider how to tackle this crisis in a way that doesn't result in the displacement of low-income residents, a pattern that is already well underway in D.C. The D.C. Landlord Tenant Court, too, will have to make changes in a post-pandemic world, and she's optimistic that they may lead to reforms.
"How do you have a court process that allows landlords to have their interests heard, but ensures that tenants get notice? That ensures that tenants have an opportunity to access a lawyer?" Harrison asks. "Those questions are going to be raised in a very real way for the court."