‘Crystal Clear’: STAY DC rental assistance offers residents a limited-time opportunity for a financial fresh start
I could not afford to pay my rent for five months last year. Money didn’t come in from side jobs when I was counting on it. So, thanks to the federal ban on evictions, I was able to keep living in my apartment until my lease was up in November. I still owe for those months and I don’t have the money to pay it back. I requested approximately $5,000 from STAY D.C., a COVID-era rental assistance program that pays my landlord for the rent I still owe. The federal government gave D.C. $352 million to help tenants like me who apply, but if the District doesn’t give much more of it out over the next two months, the feds may take it back.
Many residents don’t know about this opportunity to make a financial fresh start post-pandemic. STAY DC includes payments to tenants and landlords for rent and utilities from April 2020 through this summer. You apply to the D.C. government — stay.dc.gov — and your landlord gets a check for what you owe. In some cases, like mine, your landlord may not want to participate in the program. In that case, the government sends you a check and you pay your landlord back with the money. Landlords can apply and receive payment directly after tenants confirm details.
Be prepared for the difficult application, which requires computer and internet access, plus digital copies of lease agreements, bills, and other documents. Also, be aware of the long delays. D.C. residents are waiting months for the help they need within days. Please share this information widely, and with people who don’t seem like they need help: a friend, a neighbor, a follower on social media. It can be terribly embarrassing to admit that you couldn’t pay the rent and other basic expenses. You’re an adult! It’s hard to abandon the facade of self-sufficiency. And what if you have a family you can’t support? In a pandemic, it’s easy to stay silent about how you hurt when you see others hurting even more. But, I believe we can be grateful and vulnerable, we can embody grace and work toward justice for ourselves and others.
My experience with DC rental assistance: a slow success
When I couldn’t pay rent in summer 2020, before I worked for Street Sense Media, I was proactive in securing signed letters from my clients proving that they would have agreed to contracts paying me until COVID-19 hurt their businesses. I was in regular contact with my landlord about the eviction moratorium, utility bills, and when I would not be paying rent.
I applied for STAY D.C. relief on May 19, 2021. The form took about 90 minutes to complete even though I had all my documents available: copies of that landlord correspondence, proof of my financial distress, and access to all of my accounts to download PDFs proving income eligibility and my identity.
I checked my application status every few days at the STAY D.C. website. After you apply, there’s a five-day period when D.C. reaches out to your landlord to see if they want to participate. During that time, the website says your application is “Pending Housing Provider.” My landlord did not respond to the government, so my application eventually moved to “In Review” as a tenant-only submission.
D.C. government didn’t move to review my application until well after it was supposed to — 54 days later instead of five. I followed up on a weekly basis with the government’s STAY D.C. help channels — [email protected] and 833-478-2932. STAY D.C. officials usually responded that a large number of applications meant that my application was “pending” or “in review.”
But, I’m grateful D.C. approved my full rental assistance request on July 27. Hopefully, they’ll send me a check next month and I can get square with my landlord.
STAY DC is helping too few DC residents, too slowly, with too many strings attached
My approval took 69 days, a very long time to wait for money intended to help neighbors who need emergency cash to keep roofs over their heads next month.
D.C. government claims that it can’t deliver funds in a matter of weeks, but that — as long as you are patient — you won’t lose your home or investment property. “If people need this help with their rent, the help is there,” said Laura Zeilinger, director of the District Department of Human Services, told me.
Zeilinger was adamant that such delays would not cause eligible STAY D.C. applicants to be evicted or displaced because of recent D.C. council legislation for eviction diversion this fall and her department’s work with legal advocates. But, the DHS head says that a tenant’s application has to be air-tight: “What I’m saying to folks is, make sure you complete your application. We would love to see everyone who can provide the evidence that they have their lease, the proof of income.”
That’s a whole lot of paperwork to get the money you need to pay off the electricity bill that runs your air conditioning through a D.C. summer — and your internet bill so you can submit job applications when employment offices are still working virtually. It’s clear that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration is not implementing STAY D.C. with the speed and generosity intended by the feds when they sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the Wilson Building for COVID-era rental assistance.
At the second of two eviction-prevention hearings held by the White House, COVID rescue plan czar Gene Sperling was firm: States and local governments should use federal money to do as much as possible to prevent renter displacement and landlord foreclosure.
While the White House and U.S. Treasury Department have emphasized speed, flexibility, and giving benefit of the doubt to applicants for rental assistance, D.C. officials seem focused on possible fraud. In what affordable housing advocates have called “a five-alarm fire,” Mayor Bowser’s top lieutenants are parsing the water pressure of a garden hose. They use the same language — “crystal clear” — to describe entirely opposite motives and priorities. It’s as if D.C.’s executive branch is deliberately misinterpreting what the president and Congress want.
Rarely does the physical, mental, and financial health of so many people depend on the government executing a coherent human assistance strategy from the Oval Office to the state agencies and down to county and city authorities. These are not normal times and it’s interesting that a self-proclaimed liberal mayor overseeing an unprecedented emergency chooses this moment to be parsimonious with the government checkbook.
Polly Donaldson, D.C.’s director of housing and community development, emphasizes the need for fraud prevention and eligibility checks with emergency COVID rental assistance.
“I see it as like, not trusting people, and not believing people, and assuming that people are going to lie to get benefits or game the system. Those are some of the myths that I think haunt programs for low-income people … and really sort of strangle attempts to efficiently spend money on urgent needs,” Amber Harding, staff attorney at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, told me. “It’s frustrating that you can have the White House make all these statements, and then you can have a local, supposedly progressive jurisdiction that is still like, ‘No, we still want to put up barriers. And we still don’t trust people, even though the federal government is explicitly telling us to.’”
Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George echoed those sentiments when I talked to her. The mayor’s administration, Lewis George says, has “come from a standpoint of preventing fraud versus getting people the money that they need to be able to pay their rent and survive.”
Besides, there is always time later to audit if necessary. “The immediate need is for this money to get out the door,” Lewis George says. “And we need to be focused on getting that to happen and not this fraud-focused way.”
More outreach needed about rental assistance
D.C. councilmembers have taken an active role to promote STAY D.C. by hosting their own pop-up events for application assistance. Lewis George believes that witnessing aid challenges directly is essential for the council to understand where the mayor’s office disserves residents.
On July 13, Lewis George joined six of her council colleagues to send a letter to the mayor urging better community outreach. It notes that D.C. agencies have improved the STAY D.C. website, but that doesn’t do much good if not many people know about the program. Councilmembers asked for Bowser to “significantly increase targeted outreach to residents who are likely eligible for STAY D.C. assistance,” including those enrolled in a District public health program. That is more in tune with the creativity and proactivity White House officials have asked for to maximize the number of Americans who get help.
D.C. councilmember Janeese Lewis George explained that the District’s COIVD rental assistance program has a difficult application process.
Inaccurate resources on the STAY D.C. website have hindered strong outreach efforts. One problem, according to a July 29 letter from the Council for Court Excellence, is the insufficient online translation tool for people with limited English skills. Another problem? The digital calendar is populated with incomplete or incorrect information about outreach events.
D.C. officials contest criticism that they aren’t doing outreach well, citing that same online calendar and schedule of events at libraries and Metro stops, plus canvassing and door-knocking. According to DHCD Director Polly Donaldson, the D.C. government is trying to send resources to community organizations where residents can get information and complete a STAY D.C. application on a computer, with access to a scanner for paper documents, in an air-conditioned room.
Yet efforts by Street Sense Media reporter Claudia Levens to attend an outreach event listed on the website were unsuccessful. She went to Kingman Park to attend a July 27 event hosted by the Office of the Tenant Advocate (OTA). The website only listed an address: 1501 Maryland Avenue NE, Starburst Plaza. Levens could not find any D.C. government tables, tents, or signage. She did not see any residents similarly lost and looking for application help.
OTA later told Street Sense Media that the event began operations at the advertised location, and later relocated up the street, and that “OTA was able to speak with several tenants who came to the event about eviction prevention and post-Public Health Emergency tenant rights.”
OTA’s response included a picture of their help table, from the agency’s Twitter post that day, in the shaded corner of a sidewalk several hundred feet from the plaza itself. But a resident unfamiliar with that area, who does not use social media, using only an address from the STAY D.C. website, and with no way to know OTA ran part of the event or their contact information, would struggle to find this location.
In light of these outreach struggles, it may be up to community organizations and residents to volunteer their time to prevent an eviction crisis.
“We want [STAY D.C. applicants] to let others in their community and their families — who they know are also struggling — to share the information and get their applications in,” DHS Director Zeilinger said. “And that’s going to be the thing that is critical and supporting a process that will allow us to avoid an eviction crisis in our community.”
Let’s not return to ‘normal’
The federal government gave hundreds of millions of dollars to D.C. to set up an emergency rental assistance program, making it one of nearly 500 such programs, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
By Sept. 30, $130 million of D.C.’s first $200 million must be distributed. If the District doesn’t spend that chunk, the COVID emergency bills allow the Treasury to take the rest of the money back and redistribute it to other jurisdictions that are getting money out the door. There’s some flexibility with that deadline — a 90-day window — but D.C. is on track to miss it or barely meet it.
D.C. has distributed $74.3 million this year to renters and landlords in the form of rent and utility assistance, combining data collected by the U.S. Treasury with the latest STAY D.C. dashboard information. D.C. has to increase the pace of approving those help requests, and sending the checks out, for the rest of the money to be available when increased outreach and marketing efforts pay dividends this fall in the form of more applications.
With the clock ticking, the D.C. Council recently passed legislation to ensure a gradual phase-out of the eviction moratorium that includes protections for tenants who have pending STAY D.C. applications, according to At-Large Councilmember Robert White. “We also included language requiring landlords to provide tenants information on how to access rental assistance and legal help,” he said.
Even as these urgent concerns persist, some experts are taking a longer view.
“The District had an eviction crisis before the pandemic,” said Amanda Korber, supervising attorney at Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. “There is an affordable housing crisis. Low-income tenants have not been able to afford their rent forever and have been in crisis for years. Years and years.”
A return to that pre-pandemic “normal” is not good enough, Korber believes.
“I am incredibly alarmed and concerned about the folks who have been in this position for years and decades,” she said. “And I hope that the District and its leaders are thinking about how we can do better than getting back to the 35,000 cases per year that were filed against tenants for eviction? How do we not just get back that number? How do we decrease that number? How do we make it so no one ever faces eviction?”
Poverty assistance should not be a series of applications
I wrote this story because a lot of people need help, including me, but I’m in a privileged position. I haven’t been threatened with eviction during COVID. I’m a local journalist paid to keep up with these support programs. When I couldn’t pay rent, my family took me in for nine months. I don’t have kids to support and my work is remote. I speak and write English very well and have the time to persistently advocate for myself with email and phone calls. I was able to find a new job here at Street Sense Media, so I could afford to move back to D.C.
Please apply for STAY D.C., spread the word about it, and contact your elected officials to raise hell about its failings. But, don’t mistake even an idealized version of this process for a well-performing system. Street Sense Media provides “low-barrier” work for enterprising vendors of its paper, and all methods of social uplift should have minimal barriers to participation. The research is very clear: Onerous compliance requirements do more to discourage deserving applicants than to detect fraud in paperwork thickets.
There’s this phrase — “it’s expensive to be poor” — where additional costs of time, attention, and mental stress are placed on people trying to access the safety net. Our least privileged neighbors are expected to spend their lives applying for things, filling out forms and traveling to locations to prove they need help. Of course, they likely don’t have that free time, or reliable, affordable transportation, or access to technology, if they need the help. Helping poor people shouldn’t require them to be good at applications. We don’t get very far in fixing actual problems if we operate with selective suspicion about who needs help and how. It’s a damn pandemic. If we can’t fix these acute problems, what of the chronic ills?
The National Low Income Housing Coalition created a public spreadsheet to track how much money D.C. and other states are getting out for emergency rental assistance. Access it here.