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Strengthening rent control
City council members favor more limits on landlords
(Published October 17, 2005)

By LAURA PETERSEN
Staff Writer

With many low- and medium-income families being priced out of the city, the D.C. City Council is taking steps to strengthen the current rent control law.

A bill that would further limit the amount landlords could increase rent for occupied and vacated housing units covered under rent control was introduced Oct. 11 during the council's legislative session by Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1. All but one council member, Sharon Ambrose, signed on as a co-introducer or sponsor.

"Rent control, as it is currently structured, is a thumb in the dike, which is … barely holding," Graham said.

Ambrose, D-Ward 6, who attended the council session, did not respond to The Common Denominator's inquiry about her position on the proposed bill.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 housing units are believed to be subject to the District's rent control law. Rent control does not apply to landlords who own fewer than five rental units or to most housing units built after 1975.

The District lost 2,400 "affordable" rental units, with monthly rent and utility costs under $500, between 2003 and 2004, according to a September report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a public policy research group. During the same time period, the District gained 4,600 high-cost rentals, according to the report.

This inverse relationship is not due to an increase in construction, according to Graham, but to landlords raising rents to a level that turns affordable units into luxury rentals.

The proposed bill would allow landlords to increase the rental rate of a vacant unit using a formula that multiplies the number of years the most recent tenant lived in the unit by 1 percent. In other words, if a tenant moves out after living in an apartment for 30 years, the rent could increase no more than 30 percent of the current rate. For a $500 rental rate, that means an increase to no more than $650.

The bill would amend the Rental Housing Act of 1985, which allows landlords to raise the rent ceiling of a vacant unit by 12 percent or up to the highest rent charged for a comparable unit within the same building. Under this law, Graham said some landlords are able to increase the rent for a recently vacated, one-bedroom apartment from $500 to $1,500 overnight.

Median rent in the District increased by almost 9 percent between 2003 and 2004, from $734 to $799, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute report. Until recent years, the annual increase in median rent had never exceeded 3 percent. Graham emphasized that this number indicates that half of the rent increases were higher than 9 percent and half were below.

The proposed legislation also would place an annual cap of 10 percent on rent increases for occupied units and would reduce the number of yearly increases allowed from two to one.

Robert Leordo, a longtime D.C. resident and member of the tenant advocacy coalition called TENAC, attended a brief morning rally Oct .11 outside city hall and applauded the bill.

He said the current law does not enforce rent control effectively because landlords still trick or intimidate tenants into moving out. Many don't realize that they don't necessarily have to be forced out if their landlord wants to sell their apartment building, he said.

"Tenants who don't know their rights comply with their landlord as if he were the ruling, governing party," Leordo said.

Graham, Council Chairman Linda Cropp and Ward 4 Councilman Adrian Fenty have also introduced a bill that would protect tenants' right to organize.

Graham predicted that both legislative proposals "will make landlords step up and take notice that abuse of tenants' rights will not be tolerated."

Cropp, while supportive of economic diversity in the city, said that she is not "100 percent wedded" to all the provisions of the rent control bill as introduced. She said she is concerned about striking a "balance" between tenants' interests with landlord interests.

The bills have been referred to the council's Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which Graham chairs. A public hearing on the legislation is scheduled for Oct. 26.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator