Landlords renting fewer than five residential units are no longer exempt from offering payment plans to their tenants under a COVID-19 contingency plan, the D.C. Council decided in a 10-2 vote on Tuesday. This includes those renting their basements or single-family homes.
During the D.C. Council legislative meeting, Brianne Nadeau, who represents Ward 1, noticed the loophole and questioned whether section 402 of the newly consolidated Coronavirus Support Emergency Amendment Act of 2020 inadvertently excluded smaller residential landlords.
The emergency measure had required property owners renting “five or more residential units” to provide a payment plan for eligible tenants who could document a financial hardship related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This meant that individuals who have been unemployed since mid-March faced the possibility of having to pay a full month of rent on June 1 if they were renting from a smaller landlord.
“Yes and no,” Chairman Phil Mendelson responded. “Yes, they wouldn’t have the payment plan on June 1st and no because it’s allowing for a payment plan during the period of May 19th to June 9th.”
Mendelson agreed that the “five or more” language was inadvertent, but strongly believed the motion to change it could be saved for the next legislative meeting on June 9.
With an immediate vote, the council would be unable to explore the impact its decision would make on small landlords if they can’t collect the full amount of rent on June 1, while tenants would be protected either way since they can’t be evicted during the pandemic, said Mendelson and Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan R. McDuffie, who cast the two opposing votes.
“When a tenant enters into a payment plan with their landlord, whether commercial or residential, it’s for the period of which they owe rent,” Mendelson explained.
McDuffie, who represents Ward 5, said he doesn’t want to pit landlords against their tenants and expressed concern about the reduced income for smaller landlords as well as the possible negative long-term effect on the D.C. community as a whole.
“I have not talked to anybody specifically about this and as chairman of Business and Economic Development I want to engage with small landlords and tenants about this issue in particular,” McDuffie explained.
Ward 6 council member Charles Allen made an argument for Nadeau’s oral amendment to strike the “five or more” provision from the emergency act that other supporters seemed to find compelling. In the process. Allen used Mendelson’s and McDuffie’s words against them,
“In the same way we have protection against evictions over the next three weeks, we also have protections against foreclosures,” Allen countered. “So when we say there wouldn’t be a harm to a tenant, if I follow that logic, then we could also say there may not be a harm to the landlord.”
Residential and commercial landlords are also eligible for deferred mortgage payments for 90 days under the emergency measure, which also covers past due amounts and late fees. Landlords who receive mortgage deferrals are required to notify tenants of the payment plan.
Allen pointed out that the council needs to think about who is the most vulnerable in this current landscape, which are the tenants who lost their job due to the pandemic and who are struggling to keep up with their rent and put food on their tables.
“Thinking about the circumstances and the harsh reality, the nation is in an anxious and frightening time and we need to have public policy that at least errs on the side of the most vulnerable,” Allen said.
“Making the tenants feel protected is a must and if it turns out there are discrepancies in making the change to strike ‘five or more,’ the council can come back to it on June 9th. There have been too many stories about how landlords are trying to pursue evictions or asking for rent in full for individuals who are not employed at the moment.”
Corrin Jones covers public affairs for the Howard University News Service.