This #TaxDay, Bread for the City Stands for Investment in Rental Assistance

The following is written testimony submitted on May 29, 2020 by Amy Gellatly on behalf of Bread for the City to the Budget Oversight Hearing on the Department of Human Services. This Tax Day, we continue to urge the DC Council for a #JustRecovery, which we believe should include fair rent practices.

My name is Amy Gellatly, and I am a Supervising Attorney at Bread for the City, a 45 year-old direct services nonprofit offering food, medical, legal and social services to roughly 30,000 District residents living on low incomes. Bread for the City is also a member of the Fair Budget Coalition, and we are in full support of Fair Budget’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Platform.

I’d like to focus my testimony on an issue on the minds of tens of thousands of District residents right now: rent. Through no fault of their own, D.C. families have seen their incomes decrease, and their expenses skyrocket during the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, we know that poor and working class D.C. residents did not have affordable housing options in line with their earnings. This is, and has been for a while, a severely rent-burdened city. 

The sudden and dramatic shift in our national and local economies has already had a profound effect on D.C. residents living on low incomes, and this effect will become a full-blown crisis if District leaders do not act fast. We need an expansive and efficient program of rent relief to keep an unprecedented number of D.C. residents from losing their homes. 

We acknowledge that the District and federal government have taken significant steps to assist families facing this crisis. Luckily, evictions are suspended during the pandemic, along with late fees and rent increases. Many renters have applied for and received the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. But that extra assistance is scheduled to run out on July 25, 2020. And many D.C. renters were not able to receive it, either because they previously worked in the informal economy, or because they or any member of their family lacked the required immigration status. 

Many other D.C. renters were not able to work to begin with, and therefore depend on government benefits such as TANF or SSI to make ends meet. While those households’ incomes may not have decreased during the pandemic, their expenses have almost certainly shot up. Families with children home from school have to spend more money on food. With public transportation cut down to its bare bones, families experiencing food apartheid are facing the additional expense of food delivery services. They also have to take on the new costs of equipping their households with protective equipment, especially those who have family members among the most vulnerable due to underlying health conditions. Many D.C. residents living on low incomes now find themselves making new investments in technology to engage in the new “virtual” forms of education, healthcare, and work. Those who are still commuting to essential jobs on the front lines may have to spend more money to get there, now that public transportation has been dramatically reduced. These expenses add up. For a family with limited to no income, there is no math that can make this household budget work.

As you know, once the Mayor declares the end of the public health emergency, the eviction moratorium will be lifted. Unless this Council takes further action, all the renters who have fallen behind in rent will still likely remain behind. The District’s new law about payment plans only helps those renters who will somehow be able to make up for their lost income in the near future. However, the District’s CFO has predicted that it will take another two years for the District’s economy to recover to pre-pandemic projections. As we know, many renters living on low-incomes were hardly making ends meet before the pandemic. Even if they do find stable income in a year or two, and their costs go back down to normal, there is no foreseeable influx of funds they could use to make up for lost time.  Unless, of course, the District provides those funds. 

The District’s ERAP program has proven that direct rental payment assistance to landlords is the most effective and direct way to prevent evictions and homelessness for rent-burdened residents. However, ERAP has been chronically underfunded, unable to meet renters’ needs even in the pre-Covid-19 era. Shockingly, the Mayor’s FY21 budget proposes to fund ERAP at exactly the same levels as FY20. Even if its funding quadrupled, however, ERAP would not be the tool we need to address the current crisis. The program is riddled with cumbersome eligibility requirements which regularly erect an unnecessary barrier between our clients and the help they need. For example, the program requires people to have very little income in order to qualify for assistance. And yet, applicants must also prove they will be able to afford their rents going forward. All this at a time when our rents increased by over 55% in the last decade alone.  If people reasonably had a hard time budgeting for escalating costs before the pandemic, to require them to peer into their economic futures with any level of certainty today would be simply absurd. No one knows when or if we will be “back to normal.”  What we do know is that people need help with rent today.  

The additional $6.2 million fund that will administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is a good step in the right direction, but it does not come close to meeting the anticipated need. This program has eligibility requirements and limitations of its own that will impede its ability to help those most in need of relief.

Therefore, instead of simply expanding ERAP, the District should create an entirely new form of rental assistance, providing rent payments directly to D.C. landlords whose tenants have been unable to pay rent during the pandemic. This assistance should be available for as long as the crisis persists. It should be as simple and straightforward as possible. Residents across the District are clearly and consistently calling on this body to Cancel the Rent, and we support them in that demand.  

Such relief will protect the investments made by small D.C. landlords and will support the property management industry that is currently in a state of uncertainty. Most importantly, it will keep people in their homes. It is now more obvious than ever before that my neighbor’s health and economic stability are directly related to my own. In fact, the only humane way to respond to the crisis is to lift up residents who are most in need of the city’s resources.

The Mayor’s “Re-Open DC” team acknowledged that the historic inequities of racism “must be effectively addressed to enable all residents to have access to affordable housing” as we try to find our way out of the pandemic. Even before the crisis, Black median household incomes were less than a third of white median household incomes. Now, Black and other residents of color have borne the greatest brunt of the pandemic, both in terms of health outcomes and economic impact. Unless we want the COVID-19 crisis to be the final blow that eliminates poor Black people from our city’s demography once and for all, District leaders must make an unprecedented investment in a rental assistance program. 

Luckily, this prosperous city has the resources to fund a District budget that reallocates resources and strengthens our safety net. By committing to help those in need right now, we can develop a blueprint for a just and resilient economic recovery. D.C. leaders must take a balanced approach by raising additional revenue from those with the greatest ability to pay and finding creative savings without hurting communities that have historically already paid well beyond their fair share.  Bread for the City supports all of the revenue raising ideas put forward by the Fair Budget Coalition, including making wealthy residents pay their fair share of income taxes, re-purposing non-essential project funding to more pressing needs, and using more of our rainy day fund. This is the “rainy day” we’ve been waiting for, and luckily, we have the resources to make sure we emerge from it with a more equitable city that is more in line with the values we profess. 

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