Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau rallied alongside about 150 tenants and supporters at a Columbia Heights apartment building over the weekend and vowed to pursue legislative initiatives to expand the city’s rent control law.
Reclaim Rent Control, a grassroots campaign supported by 45 local unions and nonprofits, set up the Feb. 29 rally. Organizers say the policies in the coalition’s platform are essential to improving conditions in rent-controlled apartments — and that simply renewing the city’s current law, as some lawmakers are proposing, is wholly inadequate. Existing policies, they say, have led to conditions such as pest problems so rampant and persistent that tenants have come to expect them.
On Saturday, Nadeau signed a giant poster in front of the crowd with the campaign’s handwritten agenda items on it, scrawling her name under the words “I pledge to introduce this bill.” Proponents say expanding and amending rent control would close loopholes that are used to drastically raise rent but would still allow for reasonable rent increases that align with inflation.
Nadeau encouraged residents to turn out in support of future legislation based on the campaign’s demands, including changes to the Rental Housing Act Extension Amendment Act of 2019. The bill was co-introduced or co-sponsored by every single councilmember in September and received a hearing in November, but it remains in the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization. Committee Chair Anita Bonds has said she supports extension without amendments that would spur opposition from housing providers and the real estate industry.
Without legislative action this year, the District’s rent control law will expire Dec. 31.
“It’s been obvious to me from the beginning that we need to fix rent control,” Nadeau said in an interview at the event. “I’m really pleased that the rent control coalition has put forth a comprehensive idea of what needs to be done, so I decided to support that.”
Both Nadeau and Stephanie Bastek, an organizer of the Feb. 29 event, say that what needs to change is the status quo.
Property managers and property owners would prefer no rent control at all, said Bastek, who is on the board of the Uptown Chapter of the D.C. Tenants Union, a group that came together in August with the help of the Latino Economic Development Center. Both groups have signed onto the Reclaim Rent Control effort.
“The status quo allows [landlords] to make millions and millions on the backs of working-class people,” Bastek said.
There is 44 years of data that shows rent control laws don’t go far enough, she shouted before asking the crowd to join supporters of rent control reform in their efforts to draw attention to the issue. She was referring to the current law’s predecessor — the 1974 rent control act that was one of the first measures enacted by the elected D.C. Council under home rule. The current rent control law, which dates to 1985, has been extended with some changes over the years.
“The average rent increase under one of the loopholes in the law is $1500. In one case late last year, the landlord used voluntary agreements with the threat of another loophole, a hardship petition, to secure 476% in rent increases. That’s the kind of data I’m talking about,” Bastek wrote in an email when asked to support her claim.
At the rally, she urged those offended by the current state of rent control to vote Reclaim Rent Control as Washington City Paper’s Best Real Estate Group in the publication’s annual “Best of D.C.” competition. Online voting was set to close the next day.
“The best real estate group is no real estate group at all,” Bastek shouted into a bullhorn.
Bastek and other Reclaim Rent Control activists extend the criticism to the owner of the property where the rally took place. Approximately 14 renters in the 100-unit apartment building at 3435 Holmead Place NW have been holding a rent strike since Dec. 6. They say it is in response to lingering rat, roach and repair problems that haven’t been addressed by the property management company, Urban Investment Partners (UIP). The company has taken about 10 the tenants to court and contends that workers have made appropriate repairs. A UIP representative did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
— Brianne K. Nadeau (@BrianneKNadeau) February 29, 2020
The residents withholding their rent and their supporters at the rally say the Holmead Place building is severely neglected.
Lilia Salvador, who lives there with her three sons and husband, Felipe, said there have been insects throughout her 12 years in the building.
In an interview in her apartment after the rally, Salvador said through a translator that she finds roaches in her family’s food — that is, when rats haven’t eaten the food first. In an effort to keep rats out, her family has nailed a piece of wood over a hole behind the stove. Still, she can hear rats or mice — she’s not sure which — moving in the walls and ceilings.
There’s an emergency after-hours number, but it goes unanswered, she said.
The building being 75% to 80% Latino doesn’t help. Several residents said some who live there don’t know their rights and lack confidence to demand accountability because of their uncertainty and the language barrier.
Rent control advocates said they have seen firsthand other problems in the building. One reported witnessing a whack-a-mole situation of sorts in an apartment. A mouse popped up through one stove burner, so the resident placed a pot on the burner to keep the mouse out, only for the mouse to pop up through another burner.
Bastek said letting conditions deteriorate is a common strategy. Things get so bad that residents are pushed out, which allows the companies to raise the rent by 20%, she said. That’s the rent increase allowed for a new tenant over the amount paid by the previous tenant. Reclaim Rent Control’s recommendations include allowing landlords “to take a vacancy increase of no more than the rate of inflation,” which the proponents say will maintain affordability and avoid “incentives for high turnover and rapid escalation in rents.”
That’s why the status quo works for housing providers: there are multiple loopholes that allow for similar tactics, Bastek said.
Meanwhile, rent control reform advocates plan to put pressure on Bonds to bring the rent control extension bill to a vote in her committee with the Reform Rent Control provisions.
“It’s up to her. We are going to hold her accountable,” said Viçtoria Goncalves, a senior tenant organizer and campaign coordinator for the Latino Economic Development Center.
This article was co-published with TheDCLine.org