By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

Conducting a virtual meeting for the first time in its 45-year history, the District of Columbia Council unanimously passed its second COVID-19 relief bill that will offer rent freezes, mortgage deferrals, further extensions for unemployment insurance and even assistance to incarcerated citizens and high school seniors. 

“We are for the first time, in the 45-year history of this Council, meeting virtually and not meeting in the Council chambers.  And we are doing this respecting the public health recommendations for social distancing during the current pandemic,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson at the beginning of the meeting.  “We recognize the need to meet and to continue the business of the legislature and to continue to address the government’s responsibility to help the public, our businesses and our residents through the current public health emergency.”

For the first time in its 45-year history, the D.C. Council met virtually and passed a unanimous relief bill for residents on April 7. (Courtesy Photo)

Mendelson said that each meeting begins with a moment of silence, but that this particular caucus would remember those affected by the novel coronavirus.

“I want to remember what is behind the current public health emergency, a pandemic that could overwhelm our health system and that is having a very real affect on people,” Mendelson said. “We should remember the people who have died from the virus in Washington… and the region… and nationally.”

With restrictions and shutdowns in the District continuing at least until the end of April, and maybe longer, the Council created {The COVID-19 Response Supplemental Emergency Amendment Act of 2020} that will help residents during these unprecedented times.

Renters will not have to worry about rises in their payment as both rent-controlled residences and market-controlled buildings will not be allowed to increase their rent.  Further if landlords are able to defer mortgage payments, renters can apply for rent deferrals as well.

“If you can’t pay your rent, then we want you to be able to benefit as well,” Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said, according to the Washington Post.

Homeowners paying a mortgage are also protected.  With the relief bill, mortgage companies are required to allow for payment deferrals of up to 90 days.

In addition there are further protections against utility shutoff which now extends to cable and telecommunication services.

Also, phones should not be ringing as much with threats from debt collectors and seizures of vehicles, as that is strictly prohibited during this public health emergency.

Housing concerns are not the only thing the new legislation considers.  Unemployment insurance has been expanded to include gig and part-time workers, and self-employed residents.

As the District faces a major public health emergency, there has been a $25 million grant provided for D.C. hospitals to buy equipment, hire more staff and build temporary health sites.

Protections for incarcerated Washingtonians are also being considered during this time, particularly as there are 28 confirmed cases of inmates with COVID-19 in the D.C. Department of Corrections custody.  The relief bill allows for up to 54 days of credit for felons and even offers the prospect of release for inmates over the age of 60 who have served at least 25 years.  

Even high school seniors are protected as part of the legislation.   The Council removed the normal requirements for in-class hours and 100 community-service hours.

Voters are also being looked out for, as mail-in-ballots for the June 2 primary and June 16 Ward 2 special election will be sent to all residents registered to vote.

With all these considerations for Washingtonians, not every D.C. resident is fully protected.

While the Council passed the bill unanimously, some members were concerned with the lack of protections for undocumented workers.

At-large Council member David Grosso (I) remarked that he was “disappointed,” that the legislation “leaves behind workers most in need of assistance,” according to {WTOP}.

Despite the disagreement in not supporting undocumented workers, the Council celebrated the provisions made in the unanimous relief legislation as well as the success of their historic virtual meeting.

“I want to thank the members and I want to thank the public who’s participating,” Mendelson said at the conclusion of the meeting.

Mayor Bowser also celebrated the Council’s work by tweeting to the members, “Nicely done.”