DC Council Passes Sweeping COVID-19 Emergency Bill

by Nena Perry-Brown

This afternoon, the DC Council unanimously passed a broad piece of emergency legislation to soften the blow of the coronavirus pandemic on the city's residents and businesses.

The COVID-19 Response Emergency Amendment Act of 2020 expands the powers of the mayoral administration throughout the ongoing public health emergency. This includes a prohibition on evictions for renters of both residential and commercial spaces, as well as a prohibition on disconnected utilities (electricity, gas, and water) during the emergency.

The bill also keeps landlords from charging late fees to renters, extends deadlines for Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act notices, and extends the Homeless Services Reform Act, which intends to ensure access to shelter.

The general course of getting developments approved will likely also be disrupted, as the bill suspends the meetings of the boards and commissions typically involved in this process (eg. Historic Preservation Review Board, Zoning Commission, etc.). The bill also permits the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to meet fewer than 9 times this year and to conduct meetings remotely.

The bill broadens the city's Family and Medical Leave Act for households impacted by the virus, and people who are unemployed as a result of the pandemic will have access to unemployment funds. Some other provisions provide relief and grace periods to the hospitality industry, allowing bars and restaurants to deliver sealed beer and wine, and extending the real property tax deadline for hotels from March 31st to June 30th.

The bill also commits to a small business grant program that places particular emphasis on nonprofits and independent contractors ineligible for unemployment insurance.

The discussion leading up to the vote offered context about the current economics of the pandemic and how this will impact the sustainability of the city's coffers. 

"I am well aware that the potential economic damage to individuals and businesses is far greater than the relief this bill provides," Chairman Phil Mendelson stated. "I do not expect that this bill is the final and last act; we will continue to look for relief. But I have to caution that, when our revenues are expected to plummet, we have our own limitations affecting what we, the District government can do. I am very concerned that the national response to the pandemic has provoked a severe recession; that's my view."

DC chief financial officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt elaborated on the financial implications, noting that the emergency is unlikely to be resolved in the next few weeks. In recent days, the CFO's office has looked at how revenue could be impacted if the state of emergency continues through June.

"If the conditions of today [continue], where restaurants only do pick-up and delivery and hotels are not doing business,...we would have to cut $500 million out of our 2020 spending." This estimate is based on previous models that show the city being able to use its reserve funds to withstand a moderate recession for 18 months. 

"We are not in financial trouble; we are starting this in the best financial shape of our history, we have very strong reserves, we have a very strong unemployment insurance fund that is at high levels," DeWitt explained, stating that a formal forecast will be conducted next month and again in August as additional data comes in to ensure continued fiscal responsibility. "We are in better shape than probably any large city in the United States to go through this."

Photo by Ted Eytan

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/dc-council-passes-covid-19-emergency-bill/16604

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