Council Extends COVID-Era Protections Including Against Eviction, Greatly Expands Consumer Debt Collection Safeguards

 

 

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How We Got Here

Since the dawn of the COVID pandemic, the declaration of public health emergencies has been a two-part process. On the legislative side, the Council has provided the Mayor with the date-limited authority to declare an emergency, and has set the terms for legal protections during the emergency. And on the executive side, the Mayor actually declares the emergency, and sets the emergency’s expiration date (as well as issuing Mayor’s Orders on health issues like business restrictions and mask mandates).

Prior to the Council’s most recent Legislative Meeting, the Mayor made it known that even if the Council extended her authority to continue the public health emergency, she would not act on that authority, and therefore the longstanding public health emergency would expire on July 25. Distinct from the public health emergency, a parallel public emergency (which, for example, allows the District to continue to receive ongoing Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to provide shelter for unhoused individuals in hotels rather in shelters) will be extended by the Mayor.

Given that all the Council-mandated COVID protections were tied to the end (or a set number of days beyond the end) of the public health emergency, the Council was put in the position to determine which of these protections should continue on post-emergency, and if so, for how long. When prior extensions of the public health emergency were issued, there was a parallel, one-size-fits-all extension of all the protections under that same umbrella. But post-emergency, each of the prior protections has its own specificities, and any extension must take these into account.

No COVID-era protection has higher stakes than the eviction moratorium. COVID or no COVID, if unable to pay their rent, tenants risk the loss of the roof over their heads. Landlords not receiving rent payments from tenants risk foreclosure and the loss of their property. In the wake of COVID, thanks to hundreds of millions of federal dollars, District renters and landlords could see their financial woes alleviated. Yet in a way, the stakes are heightened even further—the federal funding pool is date-limited and incentive-based. We literally must use it or we will lose it.

The Council was faced with a challenging balancing act—how to firmly yet compassionately encourage tenants and landlords to take advantage of the available federal funds (via the District’s STAY DC program) while acknowledging that the technology, pace, efficiency, and publicity of that program have profoundly under-performed up until this point.

When the Council first attempted to tackle sunsetting the eviction moratorium a few weeks back, the urgency was there but the readiness of STAY DC, and the timing, did not justify moving forward. Since that time, a working group has been meeting to square the circle and ensure that the moratorium would come to an end, that STAY DC would be a credible alternative, and that those most in need would have the most time, help, and flexibility to make STAY DC work.

Specifics Regarding Date Extensions

Under the current law, the eviction moratorium would have expired across the board for everyone 60 days after the end of the public health emergency on July 25 (in other words, on September 23). In the measure passed by the Council at its most recent meeting, a range of dates is put into place. Evictions based on tenants who commit acts of violence, or cause extensive damage to property, can proceed immediately. Other eviction filings must wait until at least October 12. Landlords can only file for non-payment of rent evictions 60 days after submitting a STAY DC application on behalf of the tenant (pending their signature), or if they can demonstrate the tenant is not eligible for STAY DC. Evictions for other lease breaches not covered by these exceptions cannot be filed until January 1, 2022. Additionally, notices of past due rent are required to be sent to tenants and must include specifics regarding the exact amount owed, etc. Notices must be in the recipient’s native language (if known by the landlord). The bill also requires extensive additional outreach by the Mayor regarding STAY DC to beneficiaries of related government programs for lower income residents.

Rent increases will not be allowed until after December 31. The ban on utility shutoff (which otherwise would have ended 15 days after the July 25 end of the public health emergency) will be extended through October 12, and 90 days beyond that for those owing under $600, as well as those with low incomes who are eligible for relief (STAY DC applicants, SNAP/TANF recipients, Medicaid/Alliance beneficiaries, etc.) Utilities will also be required to enter into payment plans with those who are behind on payments. Additionally, the bill makes explicit that internet service should be considered as a utility for purposes of STAY DC.

Barring further action, the Council ban on foreclosures will end on November 5.The terms of prior COVID response legislation regarding Unemployment Insurance are extended through February 5. Advisory Neighborhood Commissions can continue to meet online through November 5.

Debt Protections Expanded

When COVID hit, in its COVID response legislation, the Council ensured that residents would be protected from debt collection during the pandemic. With that protection set to expire with the public health emergency, new standalone protections were needed. However, in re-examining the current state of the District’s laws regarding debt, it became clear that the underlying law dated from 1971, prior even to the District receiving Home Rule, and that therefore the law was sorely outdated.

In updating the measure, the Council ensured that some of the more weighty categories of today’s debt, including credit card debt, medical debt, and student loan debt, were now explicitly covered by the provisions of the District laws. Furthermore, the bill’s language restricting excessive contact by collectors was expanded to include post-1971 modes of communication, such as voicemail, text messages, and e-mails.

The new bill focuses specifically on aggressive debt collection. It bans collectors from contacting family or employers regarding a person’s debt, or from pursuing survivors for the debt of a deceased individual. It stops collectors from threatening to do things they have no legal right to do in the first place. It limits debt collections contacts to three a week maximum. And it ensures that no person can be jailed for failure to pay a debt.

The bill as passed at the Council’s most recent meeting is an emergency measure, and pending the Mayor’s signature, will remain in effect for just 90 days. In the interim, the Council is expected to take action on parallel permanent legislation, including holding hearings on the topic.

In other actions at the most recent meeting, a Sense of the Council measure was passed declaring the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate and white supremacy. The measure had its origins in activism by local students.

The Council’s three upcoming Legislative Meetings will be weighty ones, with final consideration of the budget pending. The meetings will be held on July 20, August 3, and August 10.