Photo showing the brick exterior of an apartment building.
Photo by Jenny Gathright for DCist/WAMU

This article was first published on Sept. 9 by DCist.

As D.C.’s eviction moratorium begins to unwind, a battle is brewing between D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration over who will take the blame when residents begin to lose their homes.

Mendelson sent a letter to Bowser Wednesday evening, blasting her administration for failing to prevent more than 70 evictions scheduled to take place next week. The chairman accused the mayor’s $352 million federally funded STAY D.C. rental assistance program of being “not nimble enough to issue payments before these evictions occur,” despite recently updated federal guidelines that grant governments more flexibility to make payments faster.

Mendelson backed legislation to wind down the city’s eviction moratorium beginning in August, under the assumption that STAY D.C. funds would prevent most evictions related to nonpayment during the pandemic. The Chairman also made an earlier attempt to pull back the moratorium, but he was voted down by his colleagues. Evictions are now beginning to be scheduled for households whose cases began before the health crisis shuttered D.C. Superior Court between March and July of last year.

As of today, 290 evictions have been scheduled to take place between Sept. 13 and the end of October, according to D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate.

In his letter, the chairman went on to allege that D.C.’s Department of Human Services, which is overseeing the rent assistance program, is “unable or unwilling” to meet with him to discuss solutions to the problem. (When asked to comment, a spokesperson for DHS referred DCist/WAMU to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, which co-oversees STAY D.C. along with DHS and two other city agencies.)

D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, John Falcicchio, responded in a letter that says, in essence, that the chairman is confused. Because evictions scheduled to resume next week are holdovers from before the pandemic, Falcicchio wrote, STAY D.C. funds alone wouldn’t prevent them anyway. The federally funded rent relief can only pay back rent accrued after April 2020.

Chairman Mendelson did not immediately respond to a voicemail and text message seeking comment.

The deputy mayor added that the city is still able to intervene in other ways, including by supplying Emergency Rental Assistance (ERAP) funds as quickly as possible. Tenants have the right to pay their full balance up until the day of a scheduled eviction, in order to avoid losing their homes.

“While the STAY D.C. program is a critical component to the District’s ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not, nor is it intended to be, the one and only eviction prevention resource,” Falcicchio wrote.

The DMPED chief added that Housing Counseling Services — a nonprofit that receives city funding to assist at-risk tenants — will immediately begin working with DHS to provide quick-turnaround relief funds to households with pending evictions that have been in contact with the organization, allowing HCS to “squash the eviction.” (The letter does not mention that only a judge can do that.)

Beth Mellen with D.C. Legal Aid says DMPED’s response to Mendelson’s letter is misleading. Chiefly, it assumes incorrectly that families with old eviction cases aren’t eligible for STAY D.C. funds. In fact, some are, the housing attorney says.

“Tenants may owe a combination of balances from before the pandemic, and during the pandemic,” the attorney says.

Mellen says some tenants facing eviction have already received ERAP funding to cover their old balances. The missing piece of the puzzle is money from STAY D.C..

“The challenge I think Mendelson was trying to highlight in his letter is that when you apply to STAY D.C., it takes anywhere from 45 days to longer to get a response back,” Mellen says. That means tenants may be accruing even more rent debt while waiting for STAY D.C. funds to come through — and that debt gets wrapped into their old case. She says STAY D.C. is not equipped to deal with those kinds of add-on debts in a timely manner. (According to DMPED, waiting times for STAY D.C. funds have decreased to an average of 26 days.)

Falcicchio tells DCist/WAMU that individuals with a combination of late balances should immediately apply for STAY D.C. funds, if they have not already, and avail themselves of other assistance available to tenants with old cases. But he acknowledged that tenants applying so close to the date of their eviction “are in a tough predicament,” and should contact the Office of the Tenant Advocate for guidance.

Renters who were sued for eviction before the pandemic don’t have the same rights under the law as those facing eviction for debts they racked up during the crisis, Mellen says. A pending application to STAY D.C. is enough to put off an eviction for tenants whose cases stem from pandemic debt, but not those whose debt accrued both before and during the pandemic.

“They need to pay their full balance to avoid eviction,” Mellen says.

An estimated 32,000 adults in D.C. are not current on rent or mortgage payments, according to the Census’ most recent Household Pulse Survey.

After Chairman Mendelson posted his letter to Bowser on Twitter, critics seized upon it, accusing Mendelson of blaming the Bowser administration for evictions that he has a role in enabling, given his support for ending the moratorium. But Mellen says the Bowser administration isn’t blameless. The city could still do more to prevent a flood of evictions, she says, including using some federal dollars to cover tenants’ costs that add up while they’re awaiting rent relief from STAY D.C. The city could route that money to providers who are able to process it more quickly, she says.

The Bowser administration has touted its STAY D.C. program as one of the country’s most efficient rent relief programs created during the pandemic. But landlords raised ongoing issues with the program in a recent public roundtable, saying money is still taking too long to get out the door.

“We need to figure out a way to make STAY D.C. more nimble so that it matches up to the legal process,” Mellen says. “Because the alternative is we will distribute millions of dollars in rental assistance, and families will still face eviction.”