DC Council reauthorizes existing rent control, but advocates continue push for broader protections

Photo courtesy of AgnosticPreacherKid / Wikimedia Commons

ike other tenants of the Park View Apartments complex, David Bonilla had to move out of his apartment in January while the building was renovated. When the residents return Bonilla predicts they will likely have to pay a much higher rent, and as vice president of his tenant association, he worries that many families will be displaced. 

“I’m worried not just for myself but for other tenants who are my neighbors, those who are living on fixed income, those who are living off of retirement benefits,” Bonilla said. “When we move back, some of them will be paying a much higher price and if people can’t pay it, they have to move somewhere else.”

Situations like the one at the Park View Apartments, rent control activists say, are representative of the ways D.C.’s rent control laws fail to stop displacement. The D.C. Council reauthorized those laws in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, but advocates say that reauthorizing rent control without closing loopholes and adding protections for tenants will lead to even more evictions and displacement, especially during the current pandemic. 

D.C.’s rent control law was last reauthorized in 2010 and without legislative action this year, was set to  expire Dec. 31. D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson added a reauthorization of the existing rent control legislation to the Budget Support Act, extending rent control for 10 years. The council unanimously passed Mayor Bowser’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget and passed the Budget Support Act on July 23.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau called for the removal of rent control’s reauthorization from the Budget Support Act to protest what she saw as an inadequate measure, but did not receive support from her fellow councilmembers. 

D.C.’s rent control laws restrict annual rent increases to 2% above inflationfor any building built before 1975, but due to loopholes in the Rental Housing Act of 1985, many rental units are exempt from this restriction. There are also several petitions that landlords can file in order to increase their rent more each year.   

Reclaim Rent Control, a grassroots campaign composed of D.C. residents, housing advocates, local nonprofits and unions, is now calling the Council to expand rent control to include more buildings, close certain loopholes, and ensure rent-controlled housing stays affordable. 

“When the moratorium on evictions ends, we could be experiencing historic numbers of evictions and increasing in folks experiencing homelessness,” said Stephanie Sneed, the executive director of the Fair Budget Coalition, who supports the campaign to change rent control legislation. “To see [the Council] not proactively trying to address that through rent control is really troubling.”

Evictions are banned in D.C. until 60 days after the COVID-19 state of emergency ends. 

A main priority for the campaign is eliminating voluntary agreements between landlords and tenants. These agreements usually involve a large rent increase which landlords get tenants to agree to by telling them it is necessary for repairs and will only apply to future tenants. However, usually landlords only conduct repairs for new tenants and try to push out current tenants.  

“The way that we’ve seen this play out for decades at this point, especially in the last 10 years, is that the landlords get the tenants to sign this and the average increase is over $1,000 per unit, so now that landlord has a $1,000 incentive to evict the existing tenants,” said Victoria Goncalves, a senior organizer for the Latino Economic Development Center and organizing member of the Reclaim Rent Control campaign. “Buildings where native Washingtonians, where Black people, where low-income people were living will quickly turn into market rate, almost luxury housing, and it’s because tenants were desperate for better conditions so they signed voluntary agreements.”

As the legislation stands now, rent control only applies to buildings built before 1975, which is the date set when the law was first passed in 1985. The campaign wants to change this to include buildings built before 2005, and have this date increase every year so that at any point, buildings that are 15 years old are subject to rent control. 

“The real estate lobby has been really aggressive, and almost all councilmembers take money from developers and from the real estate lobby,” Goncalves said. “I think that has something to do with the fact that the date hasn’t been changed.”

Another way that current rent control legislation encourages displacement and high turnover rates is through vacancy increases. When tenants move out, landlords are allowed to increase their rent by 10-20%, so there is a large incentive for landlords to evict tenants and encourage high turnover in their buildings, Goncalves said. 

Reclaim Rent Control is also calling for increased oversight and change to some of the petitions that landlords can apply for in D.C., including hardship petitions. Landlords can file a hardship petition to be allowed to raise rent more than the legal limit in circumstances when they stand to make a profit of less than 12% on their property in a year— Reclaim Rent Control seeks to lower this number.

“A 12% rate of return is ridiculous; Walmart doesn’t get that amount back every year,” Goncalves said. “Landlords can basically just say ‘I’m not making enough profit therefore I need to increase the rent, because the law entitles me to make 12%.’”

Goncalves argues that D.C. could implement these changes right away. “It doesn’t cost the city anything right now to do these things, they would just need to plan to get less money from that specific source of revenue,” Goncalves said. 

The campaign’s recommended changes to rent control are not just to ensure affordable housing, but to ensure stability and predictability for tenants and families, according to Goncalves. 

“Right now, there are so many aspects about the law that incentivize really quick turnover which is bad for building long-term community and stability in people’s neighborhoods and homes,” Goncalves said. “You could argue that if more people have stable housing and have stability in their housing then we would need to spend less of [Department of Human Services] funds on homeless services.”

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