While the D.C. Council and the mayor have instituted measures to protect renters in the District during the COVID-19 crisis, tenants should be vigilant in protecting their rights, a housing advocate and legal practitioner said.

The council passed legislation on March 17 that prohibits evictions and late fees for renters while the state of emergency and the public health state of emergency exists. In supplemental legislation, rent increases for all residential properties during the emergency and 30 days afterward are also prohibited.

However, James McCormick, a board member of the DC Tenants Union, a pro-renter organization seeking to form a union to protect the rights of non-homeowners in the District, said abuses by landlords may take place even though they are outlawed.

“For example, there may be a landlord who wants to take advantage of a tenant who isn’t aware of the conditions that the law has laid out in an emergency,” McCormick. “That landlord may try to evict the tenant knowing that is wrong. Evictions during the emergency are illegal.

“If that takes place, tenants should immediately contact the Office of the Attorney General and their council member,” he said.

Tenants comprise a large portion of the District’s population according to government statistics. The American Community Survey, commissioned by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017, said 57.79 percent of all District residents are tenants. Ward 8 in Southeast, according to the survey, had the highest rate of renters in the District with 78 percent of its population while Ward 4, located largely in Northwest, had the smallest percentage of tenants with 41 percent.

Studies reveal that District renters pay more than many Americans for their housing. For example, the survey reports that renters in the District pay the median $1,622 monthly for a one-bedroom apartment while nationally the figure comes out to $1,012.
Personal finance experts consistently say that only 30 percent of a person’s income should be allocated for a rent or mortgage payment but in the District, according to Curbed DC, a website that covers housing matters, more than one in five tenant households are spending 50 percent of their income on their dwelling.

Jennifer Berger, the chief of the District’s attorney general social justice section of the public advocacy division, said there are programs to help tenants deal with circumstances surrounding the pandemic. On an April 3 tele-town hall meeting for senior citizens, Berger talked about programs that tenants should be aware of.

“There is rental assistance for tenants that have to pay $1,250 a month and those who have children and the elderly living with them,” she said. “This rental assistance is available once a year for renters and includes security deposits.”

The District’s Department of Housing and Community Development also has a rental assistance program where a tenant will be eligible for up to $600 a month based on income for a minimum of six months and up to two years based on financial need and available funds, according to the coronavirus.dc.gov website.

Berger agreed with McCormick in that evictions are illegal during the emergency and said her office will investigate and pursue legal action against landlords that violate the law. She noted that the Landlord-Tenant Division of the D.C. Superior Court has been shuttered due to the emergency, with a tentative reopening date of May 20.

McCormick said the issue of the payment of back rent should loom in the mind of tenants.

“When the state of emergency is lifted and the legally mandates days after are done, rent will be due,” he said. “While my organization advocates that back rent should not be collected during the time of the emergency, it is best for tenants to interact with their landlords to set up payment plans so they can remain in their homes. If that tenant cannot work out an agreement with their landlord, they need to seek the advice of an attorney.”

McCormick said tenants in the District need to organize in order to stop mass evictions from taking place after the emergency and the grace period that follows it terminates.

“We should be working collectively not individually on this,” he said. “There is no one set solution for everyone on this. Tenants need help and being organized will help them exercise their full legal rights in D.C.”

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