While much of the conversation around the D.C. Council’s first budget reading focused on the removal of police officers from schools and whether, and for whom, the District government would raise taxes, an item added by Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) drew the ire of several rent control advocates — including one who would most likely become Mendelson’s colleague next year.
Janeese Lewis George, the Ward 4 Democratic nominee for the council, counted among a bevy of voices who decried the legislative body’s recent vote to extend the District’s currently existing rent control laws without expanding and strengthening them, and closing loopholes.
The millennial attorney, considered a likely winner in the November general election, joined affiliates of the Reclaim Rent Control campaign last year who opposed provisions of the law they said disadvantaged low-income residents and reduced D.C.’s affordable housing stock.
“Rent control is important [and] it deserves its own consideration. It’s a huge tool for stopping the displacement of Black and brown residents in the District,” George said.
With the law up for renewal this year, George said that the council must show more consideration for recommendations that campaign members presented in November during a hearing hosted by the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization.
Tenets of the movement have focused on the inclusion of four-unit buildings and buildings built before 2005 in rent control laws. Another provision that campaign members are eyeing caps annual rent increases at the rate of inflation.
“Council member Anita Bonds [who chairs the housing committee] and Council Chair Phil Mendelson had the information and proposals that we submitted,” George said. “Even if Mendelson wanted to place rent control within this emergency bill, he could’ve placed it with the recommendation that we had in November. We have to work together to make sure that this matter will be brought up this year, and we can bring some of these provisions forward.”
The situation unfolds amid grassroots efforts to cancel rent that have persisted since the coronavirus brought all economic and social activity in the District to a standstill earlier in the year. The council passed an eviction moratorium that advocates championed in the early days of the District’s public health emergency. From the start, there was some contention that COVID-19 exacerbated inequalities fostered by weak rent control laws.
During the July 7 virtual meeting, Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) questioned whether the council would continue its conversations around renewing rent control and the conditions under which it’s done.
George, who touted housing as a top issue during her campaign, said the manner in which she spends her first 100 days as Ward 4 council member depends on the shape of D.C.’s rent control laws at the end of the year.
Legislation introduced by Bonds last year incited discussion about the Rental Housing Act of 1985. That law as it stands applies to units built before 1976. It has kept living cost increases at less than 5 percent for rent-control tenants and less than 3 percent for D.C.’s rent-control seniors. However, as more renovated and newly constructed buildings replaced older units, the District’s stock of rent-controlled housing has fallen by the tens of thousands. The council’s repeal of the rent ceiling provision in 2006 has also played a significant role in shrinking rent-controlled housing.
The Reclaim Rent Control campaign, officially launched in the lobby of 220 Hamilton Street NW last fall, brought together nonprofits, tenant unions, and advocacy organizations in the fight for expanding and strengthening rent control laws.
The tenants of 220 Hamilton Street NW, who had recently purchased and set in motion renovations for their rent-controlled building via the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, would later vacate their building in anticipation of the process scheduled to start in early 2020 and end in mid-2021 with their return to new accommodations.
Months after moving out, David Bonilla, a Reclaim Rent Control campaign member and tenant association vice president at 220 Hamilton Street NW, said the project has been stagnant, and the tenant association without updates from contractors. Even so, Bonilla and other tenant advocates from 220 Hamilton Street NW and throughout the District have coalesced around rent control, and in certain cases rent strikes during the pandemic.
For him, the council’s latest move sheds light on a frustration shared by D.C. residents living on the margins.
“We’re over here advocating and [the council] is telling us that they listen to us, but when it comes down to it, they don’t put anything in place. This agitates me,” Bonilla said.
“At the end of the day, they leave things the way it is,” he continued. “We continue to advocate and come together. We have a tenant union with more apartment buildings. We will continue to support building associations and ask for better housing and quality of life.”