By Matt Koehler

In DC, according to a November 2020 report from the Department of Employment Services, the DC economy is slowly crawling back, and employment numbers are slightly up across several industries. However, there still remain hundreds, if not thousands of families, in the District that are struggling to pay bills and rent, especially as it relates to COVID-19. 

There are several options to receive emergency rental assistance, but the path can be long and tricky, and those who counsel renters suggest that, if you are struggling, it is best to start the process of obtaining assistance sooner rather than later. The Southwester recently spoke with Kay Pierson, director of the United Planning Organization, who explained how renters should go about getting the financial assistance you need.

Pierson told me that as it was originally conceived, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), was meant to help those in extreme poverty. “You had to be at or below 125% of the poverty level. You had to prove that you could pay your rent going forward. You had to document your hardship.” Hardships are anything from falling ill and not being able to work to the breadwinner in the family dying to being laid off or unemployed. Whatever the circumstances, though, you needed to provide detailed documentation of what your hardship was. 

“But, the pandemic hit and all the rules changed,” Pierson said, “DHCB (Department of Housing and Community Development) started a different program called ‘COVID Housing Assistance Program’ (CHAP for short).” Pierson explained that CHAP “allowed people who made up to 80% MFI (Median Family Income) to apply for rental assistance.” 

Like ERAP, you still have to show documentation that your hardship was caused, in some way, by COVID – whether you were sick, you were taking care of someone else who was sick, or you were laid off or had reduced hours due to the pandemic. And now, with changes made to ERAP several months ago, qualified renters no longer have to prove they can pay the rent going forward. It also increased the income eligibility to 40% Area Median Income (AMI) and raised the amount of rental assistance they could receive.

To begin the process of applying for rental assistance you need to go to the DHS website (DHS.dc.gov) and click on the “Emergency Rental Assistance” tab. There you will find another DC government page explaining ERAP with links for documents you will need to fill out. “And when you do that, you’re given one of the seven or so providers and then we follow up with you and make sure you get an application, and that that application is processed.” (You can read about and apply for CHAP here: https://dhcd.dc.gov/service/covid-19-rental-assistance.)  

It’s not that straight forward, though, according to Pierson who says that most tenants cannot get all the necessary documents right away. “In addition to your own application and personal documents, you have to get a rent ledger (a written record of rent money paid by the tenant that includes: date, amount paid, method of payment, and any outstanding balance) and a W-9 from your landlord.” All this can take several weeks to obtain and Pierson says they can’t process an application until all the right documents are in hand.

Part of the problem, according to Pierson, with obtaining all these documents is that many landlords are working remotely or they are out-of-state or country, and so counselors end up spending a lot of time tracking them down. “So that is a bottleneck right there.” 

“Right now, there’s just a lot of people… Literally hundreds of people trying to apply at the same time. So it just takes time to cull through all of those applications and process them.”

Since the beginning of COVID, Pierson says that they have been able to help somewhere just north of 250 families compared to approximately 331 for FY 2019. “And, we’re expected to process hundreds more before the end of this year.”

Again, the process has many turns and the biggest hurdles those seeking assistance face are getting the proper documents together and simply understanding what documents they need. “For CHAP,  you still have to show a hardship. You still have to produce some kind of income documents. It can be what they call a HUD-5 (found here), a bank statement, or a 1040.” 

“Some people just drop off their applications and call you a month later and say, ‘Well, I sent my application in a month ago, you know, why haven’t I gotten my money?’ I have [to tell them] that it doesn’t work like that. You gotta get all those documents together. Sometimes they do all they can on their end and the landlord just, you know, takes their time getting.”

Pierson suggests that you make sure you have all your documents before you try to fill out an application, check with your landlord, and get a W-9. She says that with the bigger landlords, they usually have the necessary documents on file, but they often have to track down the smaller operators, which causes further delays.

COVID, of course, has presented its own set of challenges to people applying for assistance. Although the virtual platform makes things easier, many people applying for rental assistance either don’t use it, or can’t. The Southwester has highlighted the digital divide before as it applies to education, but the divide applies here too. Pierson says “there are people who don’t have access to computers or don’t have the internet.” 

If you cannot fill out an application online, a list of places you can call can be found here:

  • Catholic Charities – The Southeast Family Center | (202) 338-3100 | www.CatholicCharitiesDC.org
  • Housing Counseling Services, Inc. | (202) 667-7006 | www.HousingEtc.org | ERAP Recorded Information Line: (202) 667-7339
  • Salvation Army (NW Office) – National Capital Area Command | (202) 332-5000 | www.SalvationArmyNCA.org
  • Salvation Army (SE Office) | (202) 678-9771 | www.SalvationArmyNCA.org
  • The Community Partnership (TCP) | (202) 312-5510 | www.Community-Partnership.org
  • The United Planning Organization (UPO) | (202) 562-3802 | www.UPO.org 
  • The Greater Washington Urban League | (202) 265-8200 | www.GWUL.org

The best thing a renter can do right now, Pierson told me, is to start the process right away. Even if you haven’t paid rent in 10 months, don’t know when you are going to get a job, and you are avoiding your landlord, communicate with them and “apply for where you are now.”

“Their rules have now been relaxed so you can apply again in a few months if you are still not able to find employment and pay your rent. But, don’t wait to get… even though we are busy, I still say don’t wait to apply. Get your application in now. ASAP. And communicate with your landlord.”

Kay Pierson is the director of the United Planning Organization, Community Reinvestment Division Petey Greene Community Center 2907 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, SE. Phone: 202-562-3800. 

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