D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is leading an effort to wind down the city's eviction moratorium post-pandemic. His latest measure is up for a vote Tuesday.
As D.C. emerges from a year and a half of pandemic-induced lockdown, lawmakers unanimously approved emergency legislation Tuesday that will gradually phase out tenant protections.
One of the strongest protections implemented during the pandemic is the District's blanket ban on evictions, which prohibited landlords from removing tenants from their homes — for almost any reason. But the moratorium and other measures were tied to the city's official public health emergency, and were only set to last until 60 days after the designation ends.
D.C.'s eviction moratorium will begin to phase out July 26 under legislation passed by the D.C. Council.Maya Brennan / Courtesy of D.C. Council
Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she plans to allows the public health emergency to lapse at the end of July.
The legislation creates a new set of eviction rules that will last until late February of next year, or 225 days after the measure is passed.
Maya Brennan/Courtesy of D.C. Council
D.C.'s eviction moratorium will begin to phase out July 26 under legislation passed by the D.C. Council.
Maya Brennan/Courtesy of D.C. Council
The gradual phase-out offers a "soft landing" for tenants, according to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, but it has drawn criticism from both tenant advocates and landlord representatives.
The new measure allows the following:
- Landlords can resume sending notices of nonpayment of rent to tenants when the bill is signed.
- On Sept. 26, landlords may begin sending eviction notices for breaches of lease, but eviction filings for lease breaches can't be submitted until Jan. 1.
- Landlords can begin filing nonpayment of rent cases Oct. 12, as long as the property owner has applied for relief through STAY DC and given the tenant a 60-day past due rent notice, and the tenant has not applied for or been denied assistance.
- Landlords can only pursue evictions for tenants who owe at least $600 in rent while the legislation is in effect.
- Rent increases are prohibited for the rest of 2021.
- Families facing immediate eviction must be provided options for assistance, and individuals with mental health issues must be offered "alternative housing arrangements," before the eviction is carried out.
- If the tenant's application for rent assistance is denied, the tenant and landlord must establish a rent payment plan within 14 days of the denial to avoid eviction proceedings.
- Tenants have a legal defense against eviction if they apply for rent help within 60 days of receiving a past due rent notice and the application is pending or under appeal.
- For tenants who were already scheduled for an eviction before the ban went into effect, landlords must provide 30-day notice informing the tenant of the new eviction date. Actual evictions for these tenants can resume Aug. 26, after the 30-day notice.
The legislation also places restrictions on utility disconnections post-pandemic. After Oct. 12, and until the act expires in February, utility providers can only disconnect service for customers who owe at least $600 in late bills and have not sought financial relief or an alternative payment plan.
The council also approved three amendments to the original proposal. An amendment from At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman would require landlords to alert tenants of their rights in specific language when they send past-due rent notices.
"Tenants who get the notice will understand their rights and responsibilities without a bunch of jargon or threats or acronyms," Silverman said during the council's legislative meeting, adding that property owners will have specific guidance rather than "making up notices out of thin air."
Another amendment introduced by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie stipulates that the mayor must send a list of people who qualify for utility disconnection relief to the Office of People's Counsel, in addition to the utility companies themselves. And an amendment from At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson requires the mayor's office to proactively reach out to individuals enrolled in a number of D.C.'s social services programs to inform them about relief through the city's STAY DC programs.
The bill now goes to Bowser's desk for her signature. (Eemergency legislation doesn't require a second vote.)
Tenant advocates say the legislation still doesn't provide enough protection for people whose eviction cases were pending before the pandemic. Beth Mellen with D.C. Legal Aid says there are roughly 300 D.C. families with old eviction cases that will be revived come July 26.
"We are worried about the timing," Mellen says. "This is a really big change for tenants. We've all known it's coming, but we want to make sure tenants understand what's going on."
The attorney wants the city to ensure that residents who don't qualify for STAY DC money or have unpaid balances from before the pandemic can seek relief from D.C.'s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. That program is now tapped out and won't receive more funding until the beginning of the new fiscal year in October. Mellen is also concerned about tenants who may receive a notice of past due rent and simply leave their homes, taking a large bill of unpaid rent with them.
Meanwhile, in a statement after the vote, the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington said the group was "deeply concerned" by the provisions.
"The 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," the statement read in part.
The Bowser administration has struggled to speedily deliver millions of dollars in rent assistance through its federally funded $352 million STAY DC fund. Since the program launched in April, the city has distributed less than 20% of the $200 million Congress allocated in December, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchiotold the Washington Post.
Advocates have been sounding an alarm about lingering issues with the STAY DC application process.
"We know the application is so onerous right now, and the administration really hasn't made it an accessible, low-barrier program for people," says Amber Harding with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "We're worried people are going to give up and landlords can go ahead and evict them."
Landlords have also complained about the rent assistance program, saying it's too complicated and time-consuming for property owners to receive back rent. It's an especially urgent problem for small landlords, some of whom have gone months without rental income with no relief.
Dean Hunter, who lobbies on behalf of small landlords with the Small Multifamily Owners Association, has been pushing landlords to voice their discontent with councilmembers. In an email to the group's members on Saturday, Hunter wrote that the bill "will make it almost impossible to evict anyone in the District" and will "create a new bureaucracy" that buries landlords in court proceedings.
"The bill is an excessive, overly broad taking of civil and property rights," Hunter says. "It's going to cause serious long-term harm to small housing providers."
An earlier effort by Mendelson to loosen the eviction ban was roundly rejected by his colleagues. But with the public health emergency expected to wind down, lawmakers would have no choice but to create an off-ramp for tenants, the chairman said in a briefing on Monday.
"If we do nothing, utility and eviction protections will run out in October. If we do nothing, landlords can immediately file new eviction notices," Mendelson said. "This is a more thoughtful end to the moratorium."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.