Immigrant families in the US do whatever it takes to pay their bills. We dip into our savings, we borrow money from our friends and neighbors, we even hold back on food if it means our landlord has no reason to attempt an eviction. Which is why STAY DC, for all its flaws (and it had many), was such an incredibly impactful program for DC immigrants: it provided a way out for immigrant families to pay their rent and begin recovering from the economic pain of the pandemic.
Now, more than two weeks since tenants lost this lifesaving, federally-funded program, Mayor Bowser holds the unique power of being able to reopen this program using some of the nearly $1 billion the DC government holds in reserves. We call on Mayor Bowser and the DC Council to protect tenants, redirect money from reserves into rental assistance programs, and lift the barriers preventing every tenant from accessing this essential program.
MLOV was one of several organizations helping households sign up for STAY DC benefits. In our 30 intake conversations, we tracked two major themes:
- First, households had either accumulated thousands of dollars in unavoidable rental debt, or they had done their absolute best to stay current on their rent and needed forward rent relief. Some of the latter families went so far as to pawn family heirlooms to pay their rent.
- And second, without outside help, most families would never have availed of STAY DC in the first place.
Though the program disbursed critical benefits, it had built-in barriers hindering or altogether preventing certain groups from accessing it. The application was inordinately long, routinely taking over two hours to complete and requiring overly extensive documentation. If an applicant did not provide these documents, which included proof of a loss of pay as a result of the pandemic, the 30-day average waiting period to receive a determination could extend to several months. Immigrants moving through the application portal also experienced numerous glitches that discouraged applicants: for example, the portal was not translated into an intelligible version of Spanish, Amharic, and other prominent languages until weeks after the program was launched.
Additionally, thousands of otherwise needy households did not qualify for this assistance because of the unique circumstances of their housing arrangement. Individuals without a valid lease - often those living in group homes and/or who are otherwise undocumented - could not avail of the program without the explicit consent of the landlord. For undocumented tenants in particular this “consent” can be risky and difficult to procure. Those who move away from a unit at which they owe rent are ineligible to receive help with their rental debt.
And crucially, loan debt community members accrue to pay the rent is not covered under STAY DC. No federal regulations explicitly prevented the Mayor’s administration from expanding the eligibility criteria to include people facing these circumstances. Nothing stops them from making these changes now.
Tenants who applied for STAY DC have a crucial statutory protection: they can not be evicted for non-payment of rent if they have a pending application. Some Councilmembers are proposing a "safe harbor" law to stave off evictions, which would codify a legal defense in eviction cases for individuals who lost income during the pandemic.
This is good, but we need to go further - no tenant should have to be dragged through a legal process just to prove they suffered during the pandemic. We need to reinstate the eviction moratorium linked to rental assistance applications - no tenant should be threatened with eviction because of the pandemic, period.
Mayor Bowser, Council: keep us housed for the holidays. Yes, replenishing STAY DC is critical. But it is also imperative that we expand eligibility for this program to keep all immigrant families, and all working-class families across DC, in their homes for the wintertime and beyond. We demand better for our families, our neighbors, and our communities.
Housing is a human right.
If you would like to weigh in, you can call the Mayor’s office at (202) 727-2643, make your voice heard and/or leave a voicemail in support of these demands!
Post by: Yannik Omictin