Screenshot of a virtual budget oversight hearing with the Committee on Human Services. There are eight people on screen, only five of them have their cameras on. Those whose faces are shown from left to right: Brianne Nadeau, Brenda Donald, Robert Matthews, Justin Kopca and Rachel Joseph.
Members of the Committee on Human Services during a virtual budget oversight hearing on May 26, 2020.

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M ayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 only includes 7.85 million in local funding for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). This is $15,000 less than what was approved last year for the current budget. 

ERAP helps low-income D.C. residents face housing emergencies by paying for certain expenses, such as overdue rent, late costs, court fees, security or damage deposits, and the first month’s rent. Residents are allowed to receive an ERAP payment once a year. 

Some advocates, though, are not satisfied with this amount, especially with the ongoing financial effects of COVID-19.

“Given the public health crisis on high-end employment, it is likely that many people will need emergency rental assistance to pay for their rent,” said Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “ERAP runs out of money every year. So even just in a regular year, it doesn’t keep up with the whole demand.”

Kay Pierson, director of the community reinvestment division for the United Planning Organization, said she is already seeing the impact of the COVID-19 economic slowdown through the high, steady flow of applicants for ERAP. She is expecting money to run out in the next few weeks. The proposed funds being considered now will not be available until Oct. 1.

“We’ve never spent so much money so quickly, so early in the season,” Pierson said. “We have a pipeline of about 25 people and that’s high. It’s normally 10 to 15 but it’s high and it’s getting higher.”

Marian Siegel, executive director for Housing Counseling Services, said her organization is usually the first to run out of ERAP funds before the end of the fiscal year. 

“There has always been a rental housing crisis in D.C., and in most of this country, and a pandemic is going to exacerbate that tremendously,” Siegel said. “I think the biggest impact we’re going to see isn’t going to be immediate. It’s going to be later in the year when all the moratoriums are lifted and people who might not have been coming for assistance are now at risk of eviction.”

As of June 4, the Department of Human Services received 2,463 ERAP applications and 886 of them have been approved, according to Laura Zeilinger, director of the Department of Human Services. The number of applications are down compared to the last fiscal year, which is likely due to the current halt on evictions, according to Zeilinger. Out of these applicants, 233 have been turned down for not submitting the required documentation or not having the resources to further mitigate their emergency beyond the support from ERAP, according to Zeilinger.

ERAP is the only program that prevents people from entering homelessness, unlike other programs that address only those who are already homeless, said Stephanie Sneed, executive director of the Fair Budget Coalition. The Department of Human Services also runs a homelessness prevention program for families, but it more often relies on helping people double up with friends or family than helping them stay in place.

[Read more: DC drastically reduces the number of people in shelter as more double up]

“ERAP allows those people to stay in their homes, stay in their schools, to stay in their communities and that’s really what we’re fighting for,” Sneed said.

The Fair Budget Coalition suggested $12 million in ERAP funding, an estimate reached by working together with researchers from Georgetown University and the philanthropic organization The Myer Foundation. Based on an average of $2,500 per ERAP payment, the coalition’s proposed amount would prevent 4,800 evictions, according to their budget report released in February. Next year’s $15,000 funding decrease compared to this year could deny aid to up to six households.

[Disclosure: Street Sense Media signed in support of a letter produced by the Fair Budget Coalition that called for specific tax and budget changes to increase funding for homeless services programs]

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau said there is potentially about $15.6 million in federal funding that can be used to expand ERAP and other rental assistance programs. She said $6.2 million of that amount in Community Development Block Grant funds have been set aside to launch a new COVID-19 Emergency Housing Assistance Program to support those directly affected by the pandemic. 

“There’s a lot of unknowns right now but there’s a lot of potential opportunity,” Nadeau said. “People are in need this year more than ever. So I think if we can find more money for ERAP, and I think we have that opportunity through federal funding, then we should do it.”

Brittany Ruffin, a staff attorney at The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said it seems premature for the council to rely on millions of dollars of federal funding that hasn’t been obtained yet. 

“ERAP ends up getting the short end of the stick,” Ruffin said. “It’s really necessary to have, particularly now, a new focus on the prioritization of D.C. residents who need these services.”

A lack of funding has been a problem for ERAP since it began over 10 years ago, according to Damon King, senior policy advocate at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.

“If we haven’t funded ERAP regularly even in times that were a little better economically, I can’t imagine that flat funding would be sufficient to meet the need for this program,” King said.

ERAP is a cost-effective way of preventing people from entering the homeless services system when they experience a setback, according to King. He added that interventions for those who have fallen fully into crisis, such as shelters and rehousing, are much more disruptive for families and expensive for the city.

To qualify for ERAP, applicants must have an income below 125% of the monthly federal poverty level and satisfy at least one of the following criteria: have a child under the age of 18, be an adult over the age of 60, or be a person with a disability.

Leonard Edwards, a member of the client advisory board for Bread for the City, first applied for ERAP in 2008, and two more times after that, because he was unable to work due to his severe arthritis. But he struggled to prove he had a disability and get approved for ERAP funding. Edwards said the eligibility requirements for ERAP should also be expanded in order to help those who have an unexpected emergency and so that applicants don’t have to jump through hoops to get the help they need.

“The ERAP program is the only thing that kept me from becoming homeless,” Edwards said. “If there’s any program I know that works … it’s the ERAP program.”

Read more: Advocates highlight major gaps in proposed budget for affordable housing and reducing homelessness