Will DC’s Emergency Ever Really End?

THAT’S probably the question many landlords and utility companies asked as the DC Council took action last week that confirmed the public health emergency will end July 25. However, legislators extended Mayor Muriel Bowser’s authority under a general emergency. Among other things, that move allows the District to continue receiving and disbursing federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act and through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).


The city’s emergency may soon be maskless but also endless. Help us!


Even worse, elected officials continued their myopic recovery response, turning a blind eye to the needs of middle-class residents while almost entirely focusing the majority of assistance on low-income residents.


Consider as an example the Public Emergency Extension and Eviction and Utility Moratorium Phasing Emergency Amendment Act of 2021, unanimously approved by the council. It extends protections into early 2022 — well beyond the July 25 end of the pandemic emergency. The law, introduced by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson but amended by five legislators, is principally intended to blunt evictions and utility disconnections.


It permits eviction filings for nonpayment of rent beginning Oct. 12, but only under certain circumstances. One is if “60 days have lapsed” since the tenant initiated or submitted an application for assistance through the Stronger Together by Assisting You program; another is if the landlord can prove to a judge that the tenant doesn’t qualify for the program. Commonly known as STAY DC, it is the city’s chief vehicle to assist tenants facing possible evictions.


If an eviction was already scheduled before the pandemic, a landlord will have to schedule a new date and provide the tenant a 30-day notice. A tenant must be given an opportunity to develop a payment plan for any eviction where the renter does not qualify for government assistance. All eviction filings return to the normal pre-pandemic process by Jan. 1, however.

The city received $352 million from the federal rescue act to prevent evictions; the bulk of it must be spent by the end of September, or the money will be returned to the federal government. STAY DC is only for low-income residents, defined as individuals who receive food assistance through SNAP, cash payments through Temporary Assistance to Need Families (TANF), or insurance through Medicaid or the DC Health Care Alliance.


Despite the large sum of money and the massive need claimed by elected officials and advocates, many thousands of DC tenants have yet to avail themselves of the subsidy. On the other hand, applications that have been received seem to be languishing in some cyber netherworld.


According to Ward 4 Council member Janeese Lewis George, who has criticized the Bowser administration’s management of the program, there is a backlog of 16,000 applications. Another 18,500 are in the drafting process; that means they are incomplete.


The phased-in emergency legislation would permit landlords to complete applications on behalf of their tenants — with the renters’ approval, of course. That could speed the process as well as restrain eviction filings if the housing providers feel certain they will get their back rent.


That might be the only mercy being shown to landlords. The council even voted to prevent them from raising any rents on apartments or commercial properties until Dec. 31.

For their part, utility companies may disconnect services after Oct. 12 — if a customer owes at least $600 but hasn’t entered into a payment plan or hasn’t been certified as eligible for assistance from the city.


While many have praised DC’s largesse, middle-class residents and others seem to be getting the cold shoulder. It’s not as if they weren’t affected by the pandemic. More than a few two-income households lost one of their paychecks, jeopardizing mortgage payments and making payments of credit card bills and other debts more difficult. In other cases, a worker may have retained employment but experienced a reduction in hours.


At least 41% of the housing in DC is owner occupied, according to the U.S. Census. Many of those folks likely aren’t eligible for the array of subsidies and services the District has provided for low-income residents since the public health emergency was declared last year. Instead, they have been forced to juggle their bills and deal with the pandemic challenges mostly on their own.


Interestingly, the federal American Rescue Plan Act actually includes support for homeowners. “There is a federal resource of $50 million for [DC] homeowners, condo associations and limited equity coops,” Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio told me on Tuesday after I went asking if anyone in the city cared about the middle class.


Falcicchio noted that the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) “will administer the resource.”


Richard Livingstone, the department’s deputy chief of staff and director of communications, sent me an email describing the Homeowner Assistance Fund (HAF) . The initial deadline for states and local governments to submit a plan for the use of those funds was June 30. The feds extended it to July 31. The DHCD still hasn’t developed one, however.

Is anyone surprised?


“We have until July 31 to either submit HAF plans or notify Treasury of the date by which our HAF plan will be submitted,” Livingstone wrote in his email. “Following submission of our plan, the Treasury Department will need to approve our plan, which would then give us access to the full $50 million.”


So, while some DC homeowners, including those in condominiums, are struggling to meet mortgage payments, District officials apparently have been lollygagging.


According to Livingstone, HAF provides mortgage assistance. It helps a homeowner reinstate a mortgage or to pay other housing costs related to a period of forbearance, delinquency or default. It also allows for reduction in principal and facilitates interest rate reductions.


The program also covers the cost of utilities, including water; internet service (including broadband); homeowner’s, flood and mortgage insurance; and homeowner’s or condo association fees.


HAF also covers “reimbursement of funds expended by a state, local government, or designated entity beginning on January 21, 2020, and ending on the date in which these funds are first distributed for purposes of providing housing or utility payment assistance to individuals or otherwise preventing foreclosure or post foreclosure eviction of a homeowner or tenant, preventing mortgage delinquency, or loss of housing or utilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Livingstone wrote in his email.


So, the city could have reached out to homeowners much sooner but didn’t.


At least 60% of the funds are set aside for homeowners with incomes “no greater than 100 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) or 100 percent of the median income for the United States, whichever is greater,” according to Livingstone. Some calculations place the AMI for the DC region at about $117,200 for a family of four and the U.S. median income at $78,500.


The remaining funds “must be prioritized to ‘socially disadvantaged individuals;’ that means people who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities,” he said.

Bowser didn’t include any additional money in her Fiscal Year 2022 Budget and Financial Plan to match what the city could get under HAF. There isn’t even a portal on the DHCD website to provide information about the program.


During Tuesday’s council discussion about the Public Emergency Extension and Eviction and Utility Moratorium Phasing Emergency Amendment Act, at-large Council member Anita Bonds said, “We wanted to give everyone an opportunity coming out of the pandemic.” Unfortunately, that’s not what she and her colleagues did.


Homeowners and other middle-class residents still need help. When it meets again next week, the council should finish the job. For one thing, it should demand the city complete and submit the HAF plan, and then implement it without delay.


Who am I fooling?


I know that instead of providing an assist, the far-left wing of the legislature will be on the hunt for wallets during the upcoming budget deliberations. They plan to move forward with a tax on upper-income wage earners starting at incomes of $250,000. That means an assault on middle-class residents — many of whom are living on the edge and have suffered financial hardships brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.



A version of this article initially appeared on TheDCLine.org



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