While there’s agreement on preserving rent control, the circumstances of a proposed renewal of the law have incited debate over the past couple of months. Legislation introduced by D.C. Councilwoman Anita Bonds (D-At Large) extends rent control protections by a decade but some people have issued a call for what they describe as a more balanced solution.
Industry leaders, like Dianah Shaw, suggest that the legislation takes into account the financial burden placed on owners of deteriorating rent-controlled buildings in communities with rapidly rising housing costs. She said that oftentimes, the money collected from tenants in those spaces doesn’t suffice in helping landlords keep up with their well-endowed corporate counterparts.
“The owner is not able to generate the income they need to keep up with the repairs, especially when you look at the increased costs of utilities, repair and maintenance expenses for materials and labor habitually on the rise,” Shaw, president of the DC Association of Realtors, told The Informer.
Shaw’s quest to shape housing policy on behalf of her constituents brought her before the DC Council Committee on Housing and Revitalization last week where she and other public witnesses testified in favor of a five-year extension of the rent control law. She said the shorter time frame would allow just enough time for the D.C. Council some time to engage all involved parties and include tools of equal benefit to landlords and tenants coexisting in an increasingly expensive city.
“Many of these buildings are owned by individuals and families who have lived in the District their whole lives and are having a hard time keeping up with their side,” Shaw continued. “Many of them still work. They’re not living on income generated from the rental property. They have jobs like everyone else and must supplement the rental property with their income, savings, retirement funds to maintain an inherited or purchased real estate that should be minimally self-sufficient or at least generate income as rental property is designed to do.”
The Rent Control Act of 1985, set to expire in 2020, protects tenants in District units constructed before 1976 — of which 80,000 remain. Since the law’s inception, the District’s affordable housing stock has significantly dwindled, due mostly to the conversion of decaying buildings into modern, market-rate dwellings. That’s why tenant advocacy organizations, particularly those under the umbrella of the Reclaim Rent Control campaign, have demanded that the legislation up for consideration mandates rent control for units in the District older than 15 years old.
Members of the Reclaim Rent Control campaign have also advocated for safeguards that discourage landlord neglect and collusion with developers. Last month, representatives launched their movement in the lobby of 220 Hamilton Street NW, a property cited by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for 170 housing violations last year. The landlord reportedly filed bankruptcy and sold it to another party before tenants used their rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act to remain in the building. That story and others during the event supported an urgent call to expand rent control and rein in negligent landlords.
As mandated in the rent control law, landlords of rent-controlled apartments in the District lease units to tenants at well below the market rate, with the rent slightly increasing every year. This rate wouldn’t exceed 10 percent.
Landlords hoping to circumvent those stipulations can file exemptions often claiming economic hardship, or the need for capital improvements and substantial repairs. In doing so, they have to petition the rent administrator and 70 percent of tenants for their consent. Some tenant advocates haven’t deemed such attempts at maintaining balance as sufficient in preventing the displacement of low-income families.
Since the turn of the century, more than 20,000 have moved out of the District in what the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity called the most intense level of gentrification in the United States.
That’s why some local landlords, like one who agreed to speak to The Informer anonymously, said they want to maintain rent control, even if it causes them significant financial burden. Since inheriting their father’s 24-unit upper Northwest apartment in 2008, this woman and her brother have found it increasingly difficult to stay true to their father’s affordable housing vision amid increasing property taxes and structural repairs.
“The development is all around us, in the front and back of our building. I’m bombarded,” the woman said. “These [developers] worry me to death trying to buy the property. The bank wanted to buy the property [when] I approached them get refinancing. This is all worth it in my heart as a native Washingtonian. Rent control could be helpful, but all the rules regarding rental shift to the tenants. We have to pick up the slack [while] they have numerous opportunities to come up with the rent or not pay.”