Photo of people holding up banners that read "food not rent" and "cancel rent"
Strike outside Meridian Heights Apartments. Photo courtesy of D.C. Tenant Union.

After losing her restaurant job in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Keitisha Bonhom, a single mother of two, could not pay her rent until she received her unemployment benefits in May. Even in the months prior to the pandemic, Bonhom had to receive support through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to avoid eviction. If another emergency arises this year, she won’t be able to receive that same funding again. 

“When I heard about the rent strike, it just made sense because of the fact that if we’re not working, how can we pay rent?” Bonhom said. “For them to expect people to pay rent, knowing that people are not receiving the same amount of income, there’s some people that are and there’s some people that are not receiving any financial income at all. For them to expect them to pay, that is inconsiderate, and especially during a pandemic.”

Tenants of a dozen residential buildings across D.C. are currently on strike to demand the cancellation of rent for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Stephanie Bastek, a board member of the DC Tenant Union. The union has also collected almost 4,000 signatures on a petition to cancel rent. 

While some tenants began withholding rent payments as a display of solidarity, others, like Bonhom, withheld rent because they did not have the money to pay. Despite receiving her unemployment benefits, Bonhom is continuing to strike at her apartment in Ward 7. 

From March 13 to July 7, over 120,000 unemployment compensation claims were filed in the District, according to the Department of Employment Services. To account for the potential repercussions of the public health crisis, the D.C. Tenant Union is demanding a two-year freeze on rent increases while the city recovers, the right to counsel in eviction cases, tripled funding and expanded eligibility for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and the enactment into law of the Reclaim Rent Control platform in its entirety.

“At this point, cancellation of rent for tenants who have been out of work is the only thing that’s going to keep the public health crisis at bay. We’re not thinking about what would be second best or what would keep maybe half of the tenants who haven’t been at work in their homes or what would not protect everyone, just because that’s not what we need right now,”  Bastek said. “It would be a disservice to our membership.”

ONE D.C., an organization dedicated to creating and preserving racial and economic equity, arranged a demonstration on June 19 demanding that the D.C. Council defund the police and cancel rent.

“This is disproportionately on the shoulders of native Washingtonians, Black Washingtonians, brown Washingtonians. These folks who are often underserved and disenfranchised, they should not bear the brunt of the mistakes of our leaders,” said Patrick Gregoire, the Right to Housing organizer for ONE D.C. “If Mayor Bowser and the city council are serious about racial and economic equity in the district, they have to cancel the rent.”

David Meadows, senior advisor for At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, said there are currently no movements within the council to have a rent freeze across the board. Instead, there are options for tenants to work out a payment plan with their landlords. 

“We don’t know how long this is going to last so just as this virus is changing, legislation can change to reflect the needs of the city and its residents,” Meadows said. “Councilmember Bonds understands their situation and asks that they work with their property management.”

Venus Little, a board member of the D.C. Tenant Union, believes this approach to the problem will not adequately resolve the abundance of eviction cases that will follow the pandemic, especially if tenants don’t have the right to counsel. She said payment plans rely too heavily on the hopes that a landlord will be forgiving, when that isn’t always the case.

“That payment plan is not going to work at the end of this pandemic,” Little said. “All it’s going to do is end up with a mass situation of evictions.”

D.C. ranks third in a national housing policy scorecard system that measures the steps all states have taken to prevent homelessness during and after the pandemic. So far, D.C. has issued a ban on evictions, late fees and utility shut offs for the duration of the public health emergency. The Department of Housing and Community Development also developed two rental assistance programs to aid residents impacted by the public health crisis. But, since there is no action addressing rental debt, there may still be a surge in evictions after the state of emergency expires, according to the Eviction Lab.

Richard Bianco, the general counsel of the Small Multifamily Owners Association, said a cancellation of rent across the board is shortsighted and will have a disproportionate impact on small landlords because they have no meaningful relief from their mortgage and tax obligations.

“If the only source from which to pay [mortgage and tax obligations] is tenant rent, and rent is cancelled, then those obligations are not going to get met and that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the landlord,” Bianco said. “It could lead to displacement for the landlord.”

Bianco also believes there is a wrong perception that landlords want to drive out their tenants when in reality, they want their units rented and displacement would work against that.

“When a problem comes along and the landlord has to take some action, whether it’s a nonpayment of rent problem or some other type of lease violation problem, once the landlord has to take action and immediately walking in the door, the landlord is the bad guy, notwithstanding the fact that they are law-abiding and rule-following,” Bianco said. “It’s difficult that all landlords are looked upon in exactly that way.”

Landlords have many expenses to take care of, and the public health crisis exacerbated them, according to Eric Jones, the vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. They include costs such as maintenance, utilities, staff payment and property taxes. Jones said that before a landlord has any hope of breaking even, they must have about 91 percent of rent coming in at any given point.

Jones also argued that a separate conversation should be held about providing alternatives for rental replacement and that it is more of a federal issue than a local issue.

“D.C. has added money for rent subsidies, for rental assistance … that’s a great start. But realistically, to ensure the viability and security of the city, we need federal support to provide rental assistance,” Jones said. “Rental assistance not only helps tenants who are unable to pay, but it also helps property owners who still have to pay all the things I have laid out.”

About 77 percent of apartment households nation-wide made a full or partial rent payment in the first week of July, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC)’s rent payment tracker. Doug Bibby, NMHC president, is quoted on the website saying that state and federal unemployment assistance benefits have been making it possible for renters to pay every month.

Unfortunately, there is a looming July 31 deadline when that aid ends,” Bibby wrote. “Without an extension or a direct renter assistance program, that NMHC has been calling for since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. could be headed toward historic dislocations of renters and business failures among apartment firms, exacerbating both unemployment and homelessness.”