The COVID Divide

Even before the pandemic, the District was home to some of the worst racial and income disparities in the nation. Deep-rooted institutional racism has meant that Black residents consistently make up the largest share of residents living in poverty in the District. And though median household income in DC has steadily increased over the past decade for white households, the median income for Black households did not.

These substantial racial, wealth, and health disparities in the District have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Residents of color – who make up the majority of our client community – have been disproportionately impacted as they are more likely to have underlying health conditions, more likely to have essential jobs that do not allow them to work from home, and less likely to have access to essential resources (such as food, child care, and safe housing).

To date, the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths among Black and Hispanic/Latino DC residents far outnumber those of non-Hispanic white residents. Looking at where the majority of Legal Aid clients live, the number of infections and deaths in Wards 7 and 8 – which have the highest concentration of poverty in the District and where more than 90% of residents are Black – are also far higher than other wards. The increase in inquiries for help that Legal Aid has fielded this year is evidence of this disproportionate impact.

Clients like Cynthia Spencer, who lost her job at the start of the pandemic and struggled to obtain Unemployment benefits; Denise Humphries, a single mother of three who, since the pandemic, has not been able to make over-time pay which she relied on to make ends meet; and Naomi and Julio Garcia (below) are just a few among the hundreds of Legal Aid clients who have been deeply impacted by the pandemic. Their stories are shared throughout this report.

Naomi and Julio Garcia’s story shows how Legal Aid’s approach to representation helps families navigate multiple systems and overlapping legal issues in a time of crisis. Like so many others, Ms. Garcia and her son Julio were deeply impacted by the pandemic. When Julio lost his job, Ms. Garcia, who participates in the Housing Choice Voucher Program (a rental assistance program that subsidizes the rent of lower-income families), was entitled to a rent adjustment which reflected the loss in the family’s income. Despite persistent efforts to report the income loss to the DC Housing Authority (DCHA), the Garcias got no response.

Legal Aid Housing Attorney Eleni Christidis was able to obtain complete retroactive relief for the Garcia family. Then Eleni and Skadden Loaned Associate Jim Perry also assisted Julio with his unemployment claim. Drawing on the teamwork and expertise of their colleagues in Legal Aid’s Housing Law and Public Benefits Units, Eleni and Jim were able to make sure the Garcia family obtained the full benefits to which they were entitled and preserve their affordable housing.

*Names changed for confidentiality