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Rent Control Reform Hearing Highlights Gulf Between Tenants and Landlords in DC

by Nena Perry-Brown

A hearing today on a rent control bill in DC highlighted the differing perspectives on the city's hot-button issue, a month after a previous hearing raised concerns about a piecemeal approach to reform.

The Rent Stabilization Program Reform and Expansion Amendment Act of 2020 was introduced by Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau and Trayon White this summer. Its provisions include limiting rent increases to correspond with increases in the Consumer Price Index and expanding rent control applicability to buildings with at least four units (rather than five) and buildings constructed before 2005 (rather than 1976).

The specter of the pandemic loomed over the hearing, and testimony ranged from impassioned (and occasionally angered) pleas to pass rent control reform to admonishments that passage of the bill could undermine affordable housing preservation and production.

Several witnesses who emigrated to DC, some of them decades ago, and whose first language is Spanish or Oromo, testified through translators about their experiences with rent control loopholes and voluntary agreements. Many had seen family members and neighbors displaced by onerous rent increases, and some have lost income or their jobs during the pandemic. The bill would address this in part by preventing landlords from upcharging on vacant units and from negotiating agreements with tenants to exchange some repairs for rent increases. 

While tenants discussed their inability to pay rent, some landlords lamented the impacts of uncollected rent and the strictures of the eviction moratorium. Other witnesses framed rent control as a racial justice issue, noting displacement statistics that have been brought to light in recent years. And still others warned that failure to pass stronger rent control protections could lead to a drastic wave of evictions once the moratorium is lifted. 

"While I absolutely sympathize with the fact that horror stories most certainly do exist, I do not want us to make false equivalencies," Alexandra Bailey testified, referencing testimony about the inability to evict tenants who were causing issues prior to the pandemic. "Homelessness is expensive. It is far more expensive than expanding rent control, so let's be incredibly clear about that. If we have a wave of evictions, we will have homelessness."

Small landlords, who own many of the city's quadplexes, provided some of the aforementioned horror stories and explained that they are unfairly burdened by the current emergency protections associated with the pandemic. Some of these landlords, who lack the institutional backing to keep them afloat and are unable to seek relief by applying for rental aid on their tenants' behalf, charge tenants little more than what is needed to cover the mortgage and fear being forced to sell their properties.

"There are problems with residents being able to get rental assistance because the programs have red tape," Shenetta Malkia, a long-time resident and small landlord, testified. "There are no programs for landlords to get direct help from the city....We need not put bandaids on situations, but create an avenue for both tenants and landlords to be productive."

The institutional landlords and lobbying organizations that testified cited the stricter building energy performance standards for existing properties, and the cost burdens associated with compliance, in their arguments against the omnibus bill. Others complained that expanded rent control would leave them unable to do any more than the most basic repairs moving forward. Some of those landlords have recently been identified as responsible for a great proportion of evictions filed in the city. 

The committee hearing is ongoing.

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/rent-control-reform-hearing-highlights-gulf/17507

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