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An Eviction Tsunami is Approaching D.C. and Few Seem Prepared

First of a three-part series

African-American renters in D.C. spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent. They constitute the highest among the District’s housing insecure, most likely to face eviction following the end of the federal rent moratorium, recently extended by the CDC at the request of President Biden until Oct. 3. A growing fear among housing advocates and others is rooted in the belief that if left unchecked, D.C. residents will join millions of displaced and homeless individuals and families across the country washed away in an eviction tsunami.

In this three-part series, we examine the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on housing security through the stories of tenants, landlords and policy leaders who occupy the front lines of protecting and preserving safe and affordable housing for D.C. renters.

Natasha Riddle-Romero has lived at the Franklin Arms in Northeast in an apartment she has shared with a roommate for almost a year. The D.C. resident said she lost her job as a server at a restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, Md. last March when COVID-19 forced the city’s restaurants, hotels and other businesses to shut down.

While she applied for unemployment she describes her attempts to secure the $300 per week payment as uncertain. She says the last time she checked, she owed her landlord an eye-popping sum.

“I owe a lot. I don’t even know. I think it’s about $7,000,” she said. “At first, it made me very nervous but now I’m angry. I lost [my job] in September but was lucky enough to get another that allowed me to pay rent. My roommate has been unemployed longer than me. We were getting an extra $300 a month but the unemployment process has been so volatile.”

RELATED: Small Landlords Face Tenuous Future as Pandemic Rages On

Riddle-Romero, an activist and member of the D.C. Cancel Rent Coalition, said she’s been so concerned about the precarious situation renters and tenants in D.C. face that she decided to join the campaign. She stopped paying her rent in solidarity with the growing number of D.C. residents at risk of being evicted.

Across town, at The Woodner, which sits in a wealthy neighborhood of the District’s Gold Coast in Northwest, almost 200 protesters, armed with placards, posters and painted banners, demonstrated in front of the apartment building demanding that property owners cancel rent.

Not far from the gathering, dozens of officers from the Metropolitan Police Department remained poised, maintaining a watchful eye. Some officers sat in vehicles while others cycled in tight circles or stood almost motionless in a semi-circle.

“When I say ‘cancel rent,’ you say ‘D.C.!’ When I say ‘power,’ you say ‘tenant!!’” one activist shouted repeatedly while standing in front of tables on which sat an assortment of foods including potatoes, apples, cheese, milk, onion, cereal and canned goods for residents to take as needed.

Sierra Ramirez, a Woodner Tenant Union [WTU] activist and Woodner resident for nearly three years, rallied the crowd along with other colleagues.

RELATED: Long Before COVID-19, Blacks Disproportionately Faced an Eviction Crisis

“Pretty early on, I wanted to organize with my neighbors because management has never respected residents and that became more evident after COVID,” Ramirez said. “We have rats, cockroaches, mice and bedbugs. Most residents are paying nearly $1,300 now; I pay $1,200 for a studio. But I was paying $800 in 2015.”

While holding a bullhorn, Ramirez told the crowd she received a rent bill that morning indicating that she owed $13,810. In resolute terms, she urged the crowd to refuse to pay rent in protest of the property managers and owners who’ve been pressuring them to pay rent even though many of them are unemployed and most are living in deplorable conditions.

“People don’t have any other choice. Anything that we can do to bring more democracy to where we live and work, that’s what we need to focus on,” she said.

Ramirez said residents’ responses to requests to join the cancel rent campaign have been mixed.

“People are very afraid. We have a lot of undocumented folks and those who have a very precarious life. They’re super scared of being retaliated against, losing their housing,” she said.

There are growing fears among housing advocates. Food security researchers, government officials, policymakers and others warn that if left unchecked, residents in the District of Columbia and cities across the country will be washed away in an eviction tsunami brought on by an inevitable moratorium that’s just months away.

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