Community

COVID-19 Rent Deferments Aren’t Enough, Some Say

Amid demands for rent and mortgage moratoriums, and ruminations of a region-wide rent-strike movement, the D.C. Council recently passed its second coronavirus package that provided mortgage payment deferments for property owners and included a provision forbidding rent increases during the pandemic.

The degree to which the legislation — the COVID-19 Supplemental Emergency and Temporary Amendment Act — takes into consideration the long-term effects of these deferments on a populace that has long struggled to pay the bills, in an ever-increasing city, has been a topic of discussion among some renters, landlords and elected representatives.

While she hasn’t heard any recent concerns about rent or mortgages, ANC Commissioner Renee Bowser (4D02) said she has emailed information to her neighbors about unemployment benefits and other forms of local and federal assistance.

In regard to some parts of the council’s emergency legislation, Bowser asserted there’s more to consider when it comes to tenants and their landlords, many of whom depend on payments to make ends meet.

“If I’m not getting paid for three months and I start getting paid, even at the same salary, I’m still three months in the hole for my rent,” said Bowser, whose constituency includes part of the Brightwood community in Northwest. “That’s why we need a waiver of any rents and mortgages. If businesses could get some help, [tenants and landlords] should get some help. Loans for restaurants could turn to grants if they keep workers on payroll. There should be something like that for apartment owners.”

Earlier this month, the D.C. Department of Employment Services reported that since March 13, more than 50,000 District residents have applied for unemployment benefits. That amount surpassed total unemployment figures recorded at the end of 2019.

On the first day of April, just days before the D.C. Council passed its latest coronavirus bill, renters and landlords across the region mulled whether, and how rent would get paid for the month. Even as some renters on social media called for a coordinated rent strike, some housing advocates, like Leigh Higgins of the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center, warned against taking any action that could land them in tenant court once the pandemic ends.

Dia King, an activist who lost his job as a valet weeks prior, said he begrudgingly charged half of his April rent to his credit card. In the weeks leading up the due date, he fought depression brought on by isolation while applying for unemployment benefits, and thinking about the drawbacks of delaying utility payments, as had been allowed in the council’s first coronavirus emergency bill.

“It’s a double-edged sword because they’re throwing a lot of money into the economy, but we’re going to end up paying for that in the long term,” said King, a Southeast resident. “This will make the cost of living go up even more. I’d like the D.C. Council to help undocumented workers, sex workers, and Uber and Lyft drivers, and [to also] see if we can put rent on hiatus.”

A 2019 report showed that nearly half of tenants in the D.C. metropolitan areas spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent, even with increasing wages and slightly lowering unemployment. Experts attributed such conditions to the influx of high-income renters entering the market. Long before the District’s public health emergency, rent burden became a hot-button issue in the D.C. Council, particularly as it pertained to issues of rent control, expanding the District’s affordable housing stock, and the ramifications of the Comprehensive Plan.

As real estate expert Karissa Spann explained on former D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown’s online show “All Real Talk,” delaying the inevitability of paying the rent doesn’t completely serve those who struggled to do so.

“There is some gray area that hasn’t been covered for renters,” Spann said during Sunday’s program. “When tenants and landlords are looking to enter a repayment agreement, landlords want to make sure it’s feasible and financially possible for the family to pay. Ninety days may not be enough. We know rent amounts are not affordable, and landlords are looking for rent to be paid at some point.”

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