DC begins to improve its central COVID-19 rent relief program, which applicants say is hard to reach and riddled with delays
Applicants to the District’s new program for tenants struggling to pay rent or utility bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic have waited the last two months for funding that’s on track to go unspent by the millions.
STAY D.C., the Stronger Together By Assisting You program, opened in April with $352 million for local tenants in need of assistance paying off rent and utilities during the COVID-19 health crisis. But many unemployed residents who are bracing for the end of the District’s eviction ban in late September said they have yet to receive any funding from a program riddled with communication issues and reported several failed attempts to contact city officials about the status of their applications.
D.C. has distributed about $19 million as of June 22, just over 5% of the total funds, according to the Department of Human Services.
If the rollout of cash doesn’t accelerate during the summer, hundreds of millions of dollars in D.C.’s rental assistance pool could expire. City officials must assign at least $130 million of the federal relief aid subsidizing STAY D.C. by Sept. 30 or else all unused funds could be returned to the federal government to be redistributed to other states, according to federal guidelines.
D.C.’s challenges are similar to those faced by other local governments. Montgomery County, for instance, had distributed just $400,000 of the $31.4 million it received from the federal government as of June 7, according to the Bethesda Beat. Stateline reported earlier this month that delays and difficulties applying for and distributing the federal relief funds are widespread throughout the country.
Richard Livingstone, the deputy chief of staff and communications director for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said city officials are “confident” in their ability to meet the federal spending deadline this fall.
He said the department is working to start sending application status updates every two weeks via email and planning to hire 50 more staff members to review applications. Livingstone said it should currently take 30 to 45 days for applicants to receive STAY D.C. funding depending on what “supplemental documents” were submitted and whether an applicant was matched to a housing provider.
“We are continually working to streamline our process and find efficiencies,” he said in an email.
Livingstone said DHCD is also developing “a robust communications and outreach plan” involving media and grassroots outreach work, where staff share information about STAY D.C. with community members and collaborate with local businesses, places of worship, and nonprofits to increase awareness. He said the campaign will include in-person “pop-up events” with application assistance.
STAY D.C. received more than 22,000 applications as of June 22. While the number of denied applications has been small so far, the vast majority of denials have been due to a missing verification of the person’s income.
Yogi Powers, a tenant living in Southeast, said she applied to STAY D.C. shortly after the program’s launch in April in the hopes of receiving utility assistance after missing all of her utility payments since last January. Powers said she has yet to receive the assistance or any phone calls, emails, or texts from STAY D.C. about her application.
“If my utilities get cut off, how am I going to cook?” she said. “How am I going to do anything?”
Electric, gas, and telecommunications providers are currently restricted from shutting off utilities for another month until the end of the District’s public health emergency, which the D.C. Council authorized to extend until July 25. The city’s eviction ban will also lift 60 days after the public health emergency ends, meaning evictions could resume Sep. 25 — five days before the city could lose its unspent STAY D.C. funding.
The program offers housing support for up to 18 months, providing money for unpaid rent dating back to the start of the pandemic last April and for upcoming rent for up to three months at a time. Applications for the program are open to renters and landlords who can help register their tenants for assistance.
To qualify for the program, renters must satisfy criteria in three categories: household income, financial hardship, and housing instability. Tenants’ household income must equal or dip below threshold income levels posted on the STAY D.C. website, based on household size and the past two months of earnings.
Applicants must exhibit financial hardship with “significant costs” or a loss of income during the COVID-19 pandemic. To demonstrate housing instability, renters must report unpaid rent or utilities or prove they spend more than half of their income on rent.
Maurita Burgess said she has called STAY D.C. between 20 and 25 times since applying for utility assistance in April for her unit in Southeast but was never connected with a representative. After realizing that STAY D.C. never sent her a confirmation email after the program’s website stated it had received her application, Burgess said she called the STAY D.C. number posted online and found herself placed on hold, sent to voicemail, disconnected, or blocked from phone lines busy with too many callers.
Her experience with STAY D.C. isn’t the first time Burgess has struggled to get ahold of utility assistance from the city. She said she never received the utility funding that she applied for last year from the Department of Energy and Environment, which offers utility assistance to low-income residents through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
“You shouldn’t have people waiting for months and almost years to get funding if the funding is there,” Burgess said. “And I don’t know what their process is once the application is submitted, but y’all should need to have some type of communication with them and with the customer. I mean, it doesn’t make sense.”
When asked about Burgess’s application, DOEE confirmed that it had been submitted but noted the application was incomplete and could still be processed once all required documents have been received.
A landlord who rents property in downtown D.C., who requested to remain anonymous, said he applied to STAY D.C. in April with a tenant who has been unemployed and has failed to pay rent since getting laid off last summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since applying, the landlord said STAY D.C. and the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser have become a “black box” with no updates about when funding could roll in.
The landlord said STAY D.C. representatives told him they didn’t have access to the main database of applications and can’t answer questions about where they stand in the approval process. He said the offices of Bowser and John Falcicchio — Bowser’s chief of staff and the deputy mayor for planning and economic development — never responded to his concerns and questions about STAY D.C. and the delays in funding distribution, leaving him and other applicants still searching for answers.
Some reforms have already been enacted. DHS announced on June 22 that it was launching a landlord portal to enable large housing providers to submit multiple applications at once and that there would be new status markers in the online portal to make it clear where each application stands.
“We’re going to see a real tremendous problem if the transparency doesn’t improve and the applications are not actually processed and paid,” the landlord said. “We can all see this coming. It’s obvious to anybody who’s looking. I’m not sure if the mayor’s office is.”
Ebony Makel, a tenant living with five children in Takoma, said she was hoping to receive rental assistance from STAY D.C. for a security deposit. Makel has to move units before her housing voucher expires in November and won’t have the money to do so without some form of financial support to cover her security deposit.
Makel said the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center and Catholic Charities, the social services agency that offers her rental assistance, directed her to STAY D.C. when she asked for help paying her security deposit.
After applying earlier this month, Makel hasn’t received any phone calls or emails about her funding and currently doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
“It seems like everybody’s going to send me to STAY D.C., so it’s like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place right now,” she said.