With evictions resuming in the city after the coronavirus protections expired, tenant activists are working to keep people in their homes and a major foundation has offered the District court system a grant to help with the eviction process.
Nicole Del Casale, who has worked on housing issues in the District, both as an activist and an attorney, has served on the frontlines of eviction prevention since the coronavirus protections ended.
She said many people undergoing the eviction process often lack both internet access and telephones.
“I have noticed there are some really sad situations with many people facing eviction,” she said. “Some people have been in the hospital for a long time and have gotten behind in their rent. A lot of people just don’t know what their options are.”
Casale said many tenants behind in their rent after the lifting of coronavirus protections have to pay $20,000 to $40,000 to be current with their landlord. She said organizations such as the District of Columbia Bar Association and affiliates and Bread for the City have clinics that can help residents during the eviction process.
Daniel del Pielago, the organizing director for Empower DC, said the District’s eviction landscape has good and bad news.
“The good news is that legislation passed by the D.C. Council has included protections for tenants subject to eviction such as a landlord cannot file on a person for non-payment of rent for less than $600 and landlords must have a business license. “The bad news is that landlords are now able to file evictions and we have seen an increase in filings.”
Del Pielago said a number of organizations have taken up the cause of fighting to keep people in their homes. He said while the STAY DC program – a federally-funded initiative that pays the rent of tenants who owe back rent during the early part of the pandemic – has expired, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program still exists but noted the finite amount of funding available for needy tenants.
“There is an ecosystem in D.C. to connect people with legal help and Empower DC is one of those organizations,” he said.
Many eviction cases in the District end up in the Superior Court’s Landlord and Tenant Division. Renters often lack legal representation when they come to the court and some are evicted when alternative methods could have been pursued to keep them in their homes.
To help state courts around the country deal with evictions with the focus on aiding the tenant, the Wells Fargo Foundation on June 1 announced a $10 million grant to the Williamsburg, Va.,-based National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to distribute to states to strengthen eviction diversion efforts.
Of the $10 million, the District will receive $605,847. The District joins Alaska, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Tennessee and Wisconsin as grant recipients.
In the District, two civil case management facilitators will be hired at a cost of $384,040 for two years with two court navigators to be employed at the level of $207,443 for two years and $100,000 earmarked for a public education initiative partnership with the Greater Washington Urban League.
The positions have been designed to help tenants in danger of eviction work within the court system for a solution. The public education initiative will inform residents living in neighborhoods that have high rates of displacement about the eviction process and their rights as well as available resources.
NCSC President Mary C. Queen said, “by equipping courts with the needed resources and strategies to prevent avoidable evictions and promote housing stability, we’re working to permanently change how courts approach housing problems in a sustainable way that fairly supports all parties.”
Bill Daley, vice chairman of public affairs at Wells Fargo, concurred.
“With this kind of collaboration, we believe communities like Washington, D.C., will lead the way in transforming the eviction process and achieve better outcomes for people’s lives and livelihoods,” he said.
D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigby said the District’s grant-supported funds present a tremendous opportunity to build on programs developed during the pandemic.
“With the commitment and contributions from the National Center for State Courts and Wells Fargo Foundation, the D.C. Courts remain as committed as ever to do what we can to keep people in their homes during these turbulent times,” the judge said.