By Julie Zauzmer and Michael Brice-Saddler
The D.C. Council on Tuesday backed down from a plan to end the city’s pandemic-era ban on eviction filings for nonpayment of rent, despite warnings from several lawmakers that the decision to keep the eviction moratorium in place could imperil millions of dollars in federal funding.
The District must use about $130 million in federal rent-relief funds by September or run the risk of being compelled to return the money. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) had proposed resuming eviction filings in the District as a way to spur landlords and tenants to apply for the rent-relief money that the city has recently made available, thanks to the federal stimulus.
But lawmakers and advocates said that the relief program, known as Stay D.C., is still new and not functioning smoothly yet, and council members decided to hold off on making changes to the eviction moratorium, which bans both eviction filings and physical evictions.
“Until the District returns to normalcy, residents need as much support as possible,” council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said.
The council will hold a hearing Friday on the looming end of numerous pandemic-related protections, and some members said they would propose ways to end the eviction moratorium in June.
Some said it was still too soon. “More than 60 percent of executed evictions happen in Wards 7 and 8, but D.C. hasn’t fully vaccinated even 20 percent of its residents east of the river yet,” said Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4). “While I certainly hope we will be in a much better place in the coming months, I’m not comfortable lifting the moratorium on optimism alone.”
Others worried that Tuesday’s decision would mean federal dollars might go to waste. “Every week that we wait makes it much less likely that we utilize all this funding in September,” member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) said. Member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) echoed: “I’m very concerned about leaving money on the table that could pay people’s arrearages. . . . Even two weeks might matter here.”
Dean Hunter, CEO of the Small Multifamily Owners Association, which represents small D.C. landlords, called the council’s decision “irresponsible” and said it would continue to have an adverse impact on landlords, who can file for evictions and send demand letters in Maryland and Virginia without issue. “The D.C. eviction moratorium is overly broad and excessive,” he said. “Stay D.C. is not the problem. The problem is landlords don’t have access to the courts.”
Though Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) lifted the city’s strict mask mandate Monday for fully vaccinated people in many public settings, and many business capacity restrictions are set to end Friday, the council voted to extend the long-running state of emergency, which was set to expire Thursday, until late July. The emergency designation allows the city to receive certain funding from the federal government, as well as empowers the mayor to enact pandemic restrictions.
Mendelson added to the emergency bill some changes following the council’s recent actions on United Medical Center, which triggered a financial control board at the troubled hospital that is Ward 8’s only full-service medical facility. The changes, which the council approved, will allow the hospital $22 million in annual city subsidies in future years, raising its allotment from $15 million, even as the control board looks to shut down some services to save money in the hospital’s final years before being replaced by a new facility at St. Elizabeths Hospital.
The council also took its final vote Tuesday on amendments to the Comprehensive Plan, the city’s massive urban planning guidebook. After years of public discussion and tweaks to the 1,400-page document, the council’s final amendments included a provision to allow housing construction atop the Tenley-Friendship Library, and language spelling out the city’s aspiration to construct more housing that is considered “deeply affordable” — manageable for someone earning less than 40 percent of the area’s median income.
The council’s vote to confirm Bowser’s reappointment of Monica Palacio, the longtime head of the city’s Office of Human Rights, took a contentious turn. Members debated her performance in the job in recent years, before confirming her on a 10-2 vote.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said she voted against Palacio because she believes she has failed at her office’s basic roles of enforcing protections related to housing and employment, in addition to making sure city publications are available in foreign languages.
“Every single time we have talked about language access — on the Stay D.C. website, on unemployment insurance sites — that’s greatly impacting people right now, and I have not heard a peep from Monica Palacio on these issues. Not a peep,” Silverman said. “She’s been in this position for a while. We’ve had issues with all these things for a while. And now we’re putting this person in again? I just think that’s the definition of insanity.”
This month, the council rejected a bill proposed by council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) that would have established a renewable three-year term limit for the director of the Office of Human Rights. He argued that it would bolster oversight of the office, which has been plagued by understaffing issues and a lingering backlog of cases.
White still voted in favor of Palacio’s appointment but said he plans to reintroduce the term limit measure at a later date. The future legislation would be retroactive to include Palacio’s appointment.
“Oversight is challenging,” he said in an interview. “The [term limit] is a tool I needed to make sure the council could properly assess issues within the agency that are very real and very important.”