A skyline of D.C. buildings - Adams Morgan
credit: Eric Falquero

On Oct. 19 the D.C. Council Committee on Housing and Community Development held a public hearing for three affordable housing bills proposed by At-Large Councilmember and Committee Chairperson Anita Bonds. Tenants and affordable housing advocates praised the committee’s rent proposals, while housing providers expressed concerns that limitations on rent increases will benefit high income renters and place a heavy burden on landlords.

Tenants like Rosetta Archie said that even rent control measures intended to ensure affordable housing for low-income residents are insufficient. Testifying in front of the council, Archie described a precarious situation for tenants striving to keep up with rents rising faster than their incomes. “We can barely afford to pay our rents and we have to deal with major leaks, mold infestations and nonexistent security,” she said. Helen Ortiz, president of the 7611-7701 Georgia Ave NW Tenants Association, said through an interpreter that she has neighbors who work two to three jobs to be able to afford rent.

“Rent control and [Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act] are just two tools in our affordable housing matrix,” said At-Large Councilmember Robert White. “We have an obligation to protect the diversity in the fabric of this city.”

White also emphasized the council’s intention to balance property owners’ need to keep buildings in good repair.

One of three proposed bills would stabilize rents by prohibiting housing providers from raising rents above the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and abolishing vacancy increases, or rent increases applied to rent control units after they have been vacant. Another would clarify the abolition of rent ceilings and limit the ability of housing providers to provide rent concessions, or voluntary agreements to temporarily reduce rent, to tenants.

Supporters of the bills emphasized the burden of rapidly rising rents for tenants, especially older residents of the District. “Housing is not a commodity, it’s a roof over people’s heads,” testified Jim McGrath, Chairmen of the D.C. Tenant’s Advocacy Coalition (TENAC), who also noted that he was 100-years old. “It’s a basic need for survival.”

Legal Aid D.C. Supervising and Programs Attorney Beth Harrison testified that the broad use of rent concessions can be abused, citing a building she worked with where the removal of rent concessions was used as a threat to tenants. President of the Briarcliff Tenant Association Cynthia Pols said that housing providers can currently decide to implement rent increases for tenants who thought they were paying the full rent, putting tenants in a weak position for negotiating a lease.

Representatives of realtors and housing providers expressed alarm about the use of hardship petitions as a substitute to allowing legal above-CPI rent increases, meaning property-owners who cannot cover costs can submit a petition asking for a rent increase. “Any housing policy that is based on litigation is a bad policy,” said Mark Policy, who testified as a shareholder for Greenstein, Delorme & Luchs, P.C, a real estate law firm. Jeffrey H. Gelman, a member of the Board of Directors at the D.C. Building Industry Association, said that without the ability to raise rents to cover maintenance and improvements, buildings would fall into disrepair.

Policy also took issue with the restriction on rent concessions, and echoed the concerns of other opponents that this legislation would not target the appropriate population, and instead could benefit high-income renters. Legislative counsel for the D.C. Association of REALTORS Katalin Peter said D.C. Council should note the negative consequences this bill could have on the market, and should focus on helping D.C. residents move towards homeownership. According to the United States Census Bureau, the District had a 39.7 percent rate of homeownership in the second quarter of 2016, lower than any state .

The final bill would close a loophole that exempts small housing providers from adhering to rent control when they receive rental units via a transfer instead of a sale, a practice which can raise rents for tenants when the property changes hands.

Daniel Palchik, a staff attorney at AARP’s Legal Counsel for the Elderly, described a case in which a housing provider transferred units to family members in four-unit parcels, which then applied for an exemption from rent control. Since Palchik’s 79-year old client’s rent control was not grandfathered into the exemption, his rent rose from $540 to $1695. Palchik and the housing provider ultimately settled a rent increase for the tenant that was higher than rent control, but which would stay in place until 2017. The proposed legislation would prevent cases like this by ensuring that current tenants whose homes are transferred to a new property owner remain under rent control or are offered their rights under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.

“We are determined as a committee to get housing right for the residents of the District of Columbia,” Councilmember Bonds said to close the hearing.