Photo depicting the phrase "Until Debt Tear Us Apart" painted onto a red brick wall
Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

With the District’s public health emergency due to expire soon, the D.C. Council voted on July 13 to approve legislation aimed at avoiding a sudden end to the consumer and tenant protections in effect in the District since the pandemic began. The measures — passed on an emergency and temporary basis — include a proposed update to a 50-year-old debt collection law and a bill aimed in part at avoiding or at least delaying evictions. 

Under the modified version of the District’s debt collection law, protections will extend to various types of consumer debt, including medical, credit card, and student loan bills. These protections did not exist prior to the D.C. Council’s coronavirus response measures, and they are aimed at protecting some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Nearly a third of District residents carry debt that’s in collection, and a disproportionate number of those affected are people of color, according to an Urban Institute study last updated in March.

The law’s prohibition on aggressive debt collection practices would bar companies from making more than three calls per day to debtors or making false threats; the law would also ban the practice of jailing people who fail to pay on their debts. Another provision in the bill sets financial penalties of up to $4,000 if a debt collector violates the law. 

“We must do all we can to protect our most vulnerable residents from harassment. Now is the time to strengthen consumer protections and the tools available to pursue debt collectors who take advantage of consumers,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said in a press release announcing the proposed legislation.

The bill — introduced by Mendelson in consultation with D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine — was well-received among consumer advocates with several civil legal aid organizations speaking out to support it. The council will hold a public hearing this fall before taking action on a permanent version.

“Modernizing and strengthening the District’s debt collection law is so important in this particular moment of pandemic recovery planning and transition planning — especially when you consider the flood of debt collection activity that we know is coming after the moratorium ends, and the dramatically disproportionate impacts of debt collection on communities of color,” Jennifer Ngai Lavallee of the Legal Aid Society of D.C. said in the same press release. 

The other bill, a broad measure to specify how long various protections will continue beyond the public health emergency, also passed unanimously on Tuesday as emergency and temporary legislation expected to remain in effect through early February. 

Under the bill’s provisions, landlords will be able to commence eviction proceedings for non-payment of rent as early as October under certain circumstances. The filings are allowed, for instance, as long as the landlord has applied for help under the city’s emergency rental assistance program, STAY D.C. Since its launch in April, the federally funded rental assistance program has spawned complaints about a complicated application process, inadequate public awareness, and a lack of legally required language support. The emergency legislation would allow for landlords to apply for STAY D.C. on behalf of their tenants, with the person’s consent. 

[Read More: DC begins to improve its central COVID-19 rent relief program, which applicants say is hard to reach and riddled with delays]

During the legislative meeting, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George noted that there are currently more than 16,000 applications in STAY D.C.’s backlog, which she predicted will not be all processed by Sept. 30. That’s when D.C. will lose access to much of the federal funding if it hasn’t already spent enough of the total allocation. 

“We are receiving more applications than we are processing each week,” she said.

The current eviction moratorium is tied to the public health emergency, which is currently set to expire on July 25. After the end of the moratorium, eviction filings would be allowed to resume starting as early as September — before some STAY D.C. applicants receive the financial support they need. 

Though Lewis George expressed hesitation at prematurely opening up a pathway for future eviction proceedings, she said she supports the legislation because it is “far better than allowing the eviction moratorium to be lifted immediately without any safeguards.” 

Others called the measure, which was developed by Mendelson via a working group that included landlords and tenant advocates, as close to a consensus bill as possible given the divergent interests at hand. At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said that while the bill is not “perfect,” it will prevent “a tsunami of evictions” from happening in September.

With this legislation, prohibition on rent increases would expire Dec. 31 and the utility disconnection moratorium would end on Nov. 5.

This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.