Funding ERAP is a Moral Obligation, Not a Moral Hazard

Everyone deserves a safe, stable place to call home. Yet, more DC residents are at risk of eviction under the Mayor’s proposed fiscal year (FY) 2024 budget. It slashes the District’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) by 80 percent and reduces funding to less than pre-pandemic levels when inflation is taken into account. ERAP assists residents with low incomes avoid eviction by helping them pay overdue rent and related legal costs. Although the Mayor has touted her budget proposal as paving a way for DC’s comeback, cutting ERAP will likely only stunt our recovery. The Council must reject this proposed cut and allocate at least $117 million to ERAP to serve all residents in need.

The Mayor’s shocking proposal to slash ERAP flies in the face of urgent, demonstrated need for rental assistance. Nearly 40,000 renter households in the District, who are disproportionately Black and brown, earn less than 30 percent of the median family income (or just $29,900 for an individual) and pay more than half of their income in rent. These severely rent burdened households are one missed paycheck or illness away from losing housing. Less than halfway through the 2023 fiscal year, DC stopped taking applications for emergency rental assistance, due to projections that the program’s $43 million in funding will run out by May. DC’s Department of Human Services has received 7,720 applications for ERAP since last fall, but this likely undercounts the number of households who need help. In fact, from last October through mid-March, a monthly average of 16,300 DC renter households reported they weren’t caught up on rent, analysis of Census Pulse data shows.

Need for ERAP has been on the rise since STAY DC, a federally funded eviction protection program, expired last year. Evictions have also been on the rise since STAY DC ended, and they’ll only continue to go up without substantial intervention. A letter from local advocates to the Mayor and DC Council requesting emergency funds for ERAP states that in 2023 alone, more than 3,050 evictions have been filed in the court system. Hearings also are underway on the nearly 10,000 eviction cases filed in 2022. As the letter notes, due to systemic racism and policies and practices that perpetuate harm, Black people and immigrants and experience disproportionately higher rates of eviction.

The Mayor dismissed the need for more ERAP funding citing low unemployment. She argued that more people are working than before the pandemic and DC no longer needs to provide emergency levels of assistance. It’s true that DC’s overall unemployment rate has gone down since its early pandemic peak of 11.2 percent; in January 2023, the District’s overall unemployment rate was 4.4. percent. But the overall unemployment rate masks big disparities in unemployment by race and ward. Nearly 10 percent of Black workers in DC were unemployed as of the 4th quarter of 2022, and as of January 2023, the unemployment rates in Wards 7 and 8—largely Black communities East of the River—remain on par with the high, Districtwide monthly unemployment rates of 2020 and 2021. The Mayor’s claims that COVID-era high unemployment is a thing of the past ignores that Black workers remain in crisis. DC’s long history of exploitation and discrimination against Black workers led to these outcomes and calls for intentional efforts to right these wrongs, not a “rising tide raises all boats” approach. Moreover, evictions lead to job loss and poverty, and harm families and communities. DC can’t have a just recovery amidst an eviction crisis. 

Additionally, in a high-cost housing market like DC, having a job doesn’t mean one can afford rent, even with recent increases in the minimum wage. Due to a history of deliberately racist policy choices, many jobs held by people of color, women, and immigrants are low-paid and make it difficult to live in DC. Housing is considered affordable when a household spends no more than 30 percent of its income on housing costs. A worker earning minimum wage would need to work 75 hours per week—or nearly 11 hours per day with no weekends—to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. Even though DC’s lowest paid workers saw their real hourly wages grow by five percent between 2019 and 2022 according to Current Population Survey data, their wages remain deeply inadequate to afford high rents, especially as spikes in inflation for basic goods like food and electricity continue to stretch families’ budgets.

Finally, the Mayor deemed that more funds for ERAP would create “a moral hazard,” arguing that people who otherwise could find a way to pay their rent would instead rely on free rent paid by the DC government. This indefensible statement ignores how ERAP works and harkens to harmful, anti-Black narratives around “greediness” and “dependency” that time and again have been used to support racist policymaking, such as the wholesale dismantling of welfare. Furthermore, ERAP only offers once-yearly emergency assistance to current DC renters with low incomes who meet an array of eligibility requirements, such as facing homelessness due to unpaid rent. DC residents cannot and do not use ERAP to avoid paying rent that they can afford, and it’s shameful for the Mayor to insinuate that they do.

Although local revenue growth is slowing and federal relief funds are coming to a close, DC shouldn’t balance its budget on the backs of the District’s most vulnerable residents. And if we want a truly thriving economy, we must ensure that all residents have the nurture, sustenance, and safety they inherently deserve—including a roof over their heads. With the budget now in their hands, DC Council must reject the Mayor’s harsh proposals and invest $117 million into ERAP to serve all residents in need.