Photo of DC Superior Court
Photo of the exterior of D.C. Superior Court. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Immediate relief could be on the way for about 500 D.C. tenants who have had eviction cases brought against them since the COVID-19 pandemic started, due to an appeal by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine.

In May, the D.C. Council passed two moratoriums: one prohibiting all steps of the eviction process during the COVID-19 public health emergency and another that invalidated all eviction complaints from that point forward until the end of the emergency period and retroactively back until March. In D.C., landlords are required to handle all evictions by filing a formal complaint with D.C. Landlord Tenant Court. They can only evict a tenant after a judge rules in their favor. 

The second moratorium was challenged in court by landlords who filed eviction complaints between March and May, while it was still legal to do so, only to have those complaints later invalidated. 

Last month, D.C. Superior Court ruled that those cases were allowed to proceed. Of the approximately 1,800 cases, all but 458 had been settled outside of court by then. But a new challenge from the Office of the Attorney General has put those cases on a stay. If the OAG is successful, those tenants will be safe from eviction until the public health emergency ends — though not necessarily safe from the long-term effects of having an eviction complaint on their rental record. 

“Since the start of this public health emergency, OAG has enforced and defended the Council’s protections for our most vulnerable residents,” Racine said in a press release. “For many District households, these measures — eviction protections chief among them — have made the difference between enduring this crisis and falling to ruin.”

[Read more: D.C. Superior Court rules eviction protections unconstitutional]

Judge Anthony Epstein of the D.C. Superior Court wrote in his Dec. 16 ruling that the effect of invalidating the ban would not be a flood of new eviction complaints. 

“The only short-term impact of the Court’s ruling,” Epstein wrote, “is that the Court will schedule a hearing in these cases as soon as it reasonably can, property owners will have to try to prove their case, and defendants will be able to raise any defense or seek any relief to which they are entitled.” 

Landlords still cannot begin filing eviction notices again until after the public health emergency ends. 

The local housing justice organization ONE DC led a campaign on Twitter calling on Racine to take up the case. Shakeara Mingo, a resource organizer for ONE DC and the leader of that campaign, said the organization was “elated” by the legal action from Racine. Racine’s press release said his office “carefully consider[ed] public input” in the decision to challenge the ruling.

Screenshot of ONE DC's Twitter profile showing several tweets retweeted by them calling on Karl Racine to challenge the ruling.

ONE DC retweeted various accounts calling on Karl Racine to challenge the court ruling. Screenshot from Twitter

The legal dispute over the moratorium against simply filing eviction complaints, whether or not they are carried out, comes as D.C. politicians arrive at a broadening understanding of the effects of eviction. Racine acknowledged that eviction complaints can be used to intimidate residents into leaving without the need to follow through. “We know that many residents may leave their homes in response to an eviction filing,” he said in his press release, “whether out of fear, pressure, language barriers, or a lack of awareness regarding their rights.” 

Research by Georgetown University professors Eva Rosen and Brian McCabe found that only 5.5% of eviction complaints result in an executed eviction. However, since eviction records are publicly available, landlords can use them to maintain a blacklist of tenants with complaints against them, whether or not those complaints resulted in an eviction. 

The D.C. Council has taken steps toward addressing the issue by passing the Fairness in Renting Emergency Amendment Act on Oct. 6. The bill sealed eviction records in as little as 30 days if no eviction was carried out and as little as three years if an eviction was carried out. Emergency legislation can be enacted in the District with a single vote, instead of the usual two, and without Congressional approval, but expires after 90 days. This bill will expire on Feb. 7. A permanent version of this measure had been introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Chech in 2018 and again in 2019. The Eviction Record Sealing Authority Amendment Act of 2019 received a hearing in October but ultimately stalled out in the last legislative session. 

[Read more: Opportunity to pass permanent eviction record-sealing bill fades as need continues to grow]

However, Racine’s appeal over the terms of D.C.’s moratorium does not affect the deeper issue facing D.C. renters: the back rent that will be due eventually when the public health emergency ends. 

“For [families behind on rent,] both the eviction and filing moratoriums do not solve the underlying problem – the moratoriums only delay the day of reckoning that they face,” Epstein wrote in his ruling. “The Court hopes that the legislative and executive branches of government will find ways to enable the families to keep or find affordable housing after the current public health emergency ends.”

The D.C. and federal governments have taken some steps to address the issue. D.C. made $10 million available for affordable housing providers in grants that cover 80% of missing rent payments, up to $2,000 per month, between April and November if they choose to forgive the remaining 20% of missing rent. And most recently, President Joe Biden has called on Congress to extend the federal eviction moratorium, provide an additional $25 billion in rental assistance, and $5 billion for services for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.