Council Goes to Bat for Tenants, Healthcare, and Traffic Safety

In its first Legislative Meeting since returning from its summer recess work period, the Council made significant, and unified, progress on a wide number of major policy fronts. And despite the relentless weight of current events, the Council also made time for a couple of small, symbolic, emotional wins.

Tenant Protection

Through action at the most recent meeting, the Council provided the Mayor with the authority to extend the current COVID-related health emergency through December 31 of this year. Assuming the Mayor does extend the emergency, the eviction ban tied to the emergency will be similarly extended, since the ban is currently scheduled to expire 60 days after the emergency ends.

The Council also took action to eliminate some confusion related to the paper trail leading up to evictions. Though evictions have indeed been banned, the current law did not ban landlords from sending tenants “notice to vacate,” a necessary precursor to a future eviction. Tenants receiving such notices were frequently alarmed, confusing the notice of a future need to vacate with a requirement to actually move out immediately. At its most recent meeting, the Council clarified the law to ban these notices to vacate as well, and tied the expiration of the ban to the same date as the eviction ban—60 days after the emergency ends.

An additional measure passed at the most recent meeting placed a one-year moratorium on the obscure and poorly-understood “certificates of assurance,” that seemingly require that landlords be compensated for certain financial losses due to expansions of rent control. Finally, an amendment to another tenant bill further strengthens existing law that prevents landlords from creating conditions that could convince a tenant to self-evict, such as utility shutoffs, withholding lease renewals, or harassment.

Hospital Tax Credit

At this most recent meeting, the Council cast the second of two needed votes in support of a tax credit to support a new Howard University Hospital. The issue of former City Administrator Rashad Young’s employment by Howard, which came to light between the Council’s two votes, was also addressed in the interim by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability via a technical fine. With the tax abatement for the project now approved by the Council, and given the support of the executive, the 225-bed hospital, Level One Trauma Center, and teaching hospital project should now be on track for an anticipated 2026 completion.

Pedestrian and Traffic Safety

Also receiving a necessary second vote at this meeting was the omnibus Vision Zero bill, which envisions an elimination of all traffic deaths by 2024. Included in the measure are strengthened sidewalk requirements, increased fines on contractors that don’t restore pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure upon project completion, expanded use of red light traffic cameras, use of cameras to enforce bus lane laws, other strengthened traffic enforcement, improved data sharing and education, and a ban on right turns on red at busy pedestrian intersections.

At the meeting, the Council also expressed opposition to the details of a federal plan to improve the Union Station complex. Despite longstanding District requests that the plan should prioritize multimodal access to the building, and de-emphasize its current focus on the automobile, the federal plan as it stands currently would include a large parking garage and would continue to have roadways cutting off pedestrian and bicycle access to the facility. Councilmembers emphasized they approve of the upgrade, just not what they considered the excessively car-centric elements of it.

Office for the Deaf, Deafblind, and Hard of Hearing Establishment

Another critical measure receiving the second of two necessary votes at the most recent meeting was a bill creating an Office for the Deaf, Deafblind, and Hard of Hearing within the DC government. The establishment of this office, with its dedicated focus on addressing the needs of their communities, such as the provision of American Sign Language interpreters, was a key priority for advocates.

All the aforementioned legislation addresses profound challenges in our society and economy, as well as the present public health emergency. However, in addition to these bills, the Council can and must continue to address the more mundane—though important in its own way–day-to-day legislation that makes up the bulk of our meeting agendas, both in or out of times of crisis. Two such bills drew positive attention at the most recent meeting. The first was a measure to declare the big brown bat the official mammal of the District, an effort driven by a number of Girl Scout troops. The second was a bill renaming Aiton Elementary School after Lorraine H. Whitlock, a beloved former teacher, trustee at the University of the District of Columbia, community advocate, and neighbor to the school that will soon bear her name.

The next Legislative Meeting will be held on October 6. The current two-year Council Period will come to a close when 2020 does, and any bills that have not been passed by then would need to start anew in the 2021-2022 Council Period. As such, in an effort to bring as many pending bills to closure as possible before the current Council Period concludes, Legislative Meetings will likely be held twice a month until the year ends.