Photo of banners hanging outside of Meridian Heights Apartments
photo of banners hanging outside Meridian Heights Apartments in Columbia Heights that state: "NOVO cancel the rent due to bad conditions" and "UIP doesn't fix bad conditions". photo by Ben Gutman

Worthington Woods is one of several sprawling apartment complexes tucked between 3rd street SE and Oxon Run Park on the western edge of the Washington Highlands neighborhood in Ward 8. In 2019, when the complex was put up for sale, the Worthington Woods Tenant Association organized to keep the property designated as affordable housing and to achieve some much-needed renovations in the process. The fortitude and perseverance of the tenant association’s president, Evelyn Harrison, is what made this possible.  

Harrison’s leadership earned her a spot on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s “Saving D.C.’s Rental Housing Market Strike Force,” created through a mayoral order at the end of 2020. The advisory group of 13 public and legislative members and 18 non-governmental members was tasked with creating policy recommendations for the District government to address the current challenges of D.C.’s rental housing market, and its post-pandemic future. 

The strike force released a draft set of 10 recommendations on March 26, but none will be formally adopted until its members can agree on final language for all of them. Several are still intensely debated.  

While Harrison continues to be listed as an active member of the strike force, she was only present for two meetings and was not included in working group sessions. Harrison said that the responsibility of overseeing the online schooling of her two grandchildren impacted her ability to participate, but that leaders of the strike force did not make an effort to include her in the formulation of policy prescriptions. 

Harrison was also unaware that she was the only direct tenant representative on the strike force and voiced her displeasure. “I don’t understand how they could do that with all the tenants in the city,” Harrison said.  

She and other tenant voices were conspicuously absent from the deliberation on recommendations that will affect the District’s most vulnerable renters’ ability to remain housed through the end of the pandemic and long after.

[Read more: The city’s next 5-year-plan to end homelessness provides more questions than answers

Amanda Korber, a supervising attorney in the Housing Law Unit of the Legal Aid Society of D.C. who was not on the task force, speculated that tenants like Harrison might not want to be held up as tokens among a strike force that overwhelmingly represents real-estate and development interests. Korber said more than one tenant representative should have been included to even the playing field and set the stage for a truly equitable debate. 

The absence of any tenant voices in the “consensus-building process” used in strike force meetings is reflected within the preliminary recommendations. 

Housing Counseling Services Executive Director Marian Siegel and Georgetown University Professor Eva Rosen, who were both on the task force, were outspoken critics of two of them: one focused on “problem tenants” and another aimed at reducing the financial burden on landlords during the eviction moratorium. 

“We still have a very low vaccination rate, we still have threats of increasing illness, and it’s too soon to talk about evicting people where there’s a public health emergency, based on threats alone,” Siegel said during the March 26 meeting. “[Evicting] one person in the household could result in the eviction of an entire family and I think we need to consider language in that recommendation.”

Twelve percent of District residents have been fully vaccinated, according to city data

[Read more: DC Housing Authority begins COVID-19 vaccine rollout while nonprofit low-income senior living is left behind]

Rosen requested that the recommendation be removed completely because of ambiguity in the use of being a “threat” as a criteria to be evicted, and because of the potential harm to people with mental illness. 

Other members of the strike force mounted fierce opposition to Rosen’s request, including landlords, developers, and their lobbyists like CEO of the Coalition for Housing and Economic Development (CNHED) Steve Glaude and CEO of the D.C. Small Multifamily Owners Association (SMOA) Dean Hunter. 

“If there’s anything we should be able to reach consensus on it’s this,” Glaude said, “and I think the language is perfectly adequate as it is.”

Regardless of whether the recommendation is included or not, the D.C. Council voted in favor of an exception to the District’s eviction moratorium on April 6 that would allow landlords to evict tenants that they can prove are a danger to their neighbors. An incident in March — where young people vandalized a property and broke in after the landlord confronted them about selling drugs at the property — brought renewed interest to the bill. The culprits did not live at the property, but were connected to a resident who had been living there without paying rent ever since his mother, the leaseholder, died. At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who is a member of the strike force, had previously been unable to find enough co-sponsors to introduce the legislation.

D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) was also a contentious issue for the strike force.

During the March 19 meeting, Siegel argued that a bill passed last month that extends the time period for tenants to exercise their TOPA rights is critical to preserving some form of tenant self-determination during and after the pandemic. 

Landlords like Josh Bernstein were concerned that recommendations provided by housing providers on TOPA were being dismissed and insinuated that this could be because the strike force was not developer-heavy enough, despite the fact that the strike force’s fourth recommendation was added to satisfy housing provider concerns on TOPA tolling, inability to increase the rent on vacant units, and others.  

Tenant advocates on the strike force, like Rosen, repeatedly emphasized the need to prioritize an increase in subsidies for D.C. renters struggling to pay their rent. Many worry that current local and federal housing assistance will not be enough to keep every family housed for the remainder of the pandemic and through post-pandemic unemployment.

People or profits: the strike force’s identity crisis

 

Despite a pledge from Bowser to center the needs of low-income renters within the strike force, several members of the strike force and numerous representatives from nonprofit housing advocacy organizations who were not appointed to it have voiced concerns that tenants are not adequately represented. Veronica Mosqueda, a senior organizer with the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC), expressed her confidence in allies on the strike force but worried that their voices were being drowned out. 

Mosqueda said LEDC was very happy to see that Harrison was appointed, having collaborated with her at Worthington Woods, but that more tenant voices are necessary to represent a diversity of experiences and to balance out the wealthy interest groups. “It’s pretty disappointing to see that there’s a lot of developers at the table making decisions for the most affected while the most affected are not appropriately represented,” Mosqueda said. 

Three of the 31 appointed members fall into the tenant advocates category. Harrison was the only direct tenant representative. 

All but one of the five members appointed to the “housing providers” category exclusively represent landlords, developers, or their interests and only one of those five is a community-based non-profit, said Korber of the Legal Aid Society. 

photo of strike force working groups

Policy suggestions deliberated in the strike force’s 3 working groups were not subject to public oversight or open meeting laws. Graphic by Ben Gutman

Korber sees this imbalance as a major inhibitor to understanding tenant needs and how to best provide emergency rental relief to ensure that, once the eviction moratorium expires, tenants are not displaced, evicted, or left homeless. 

Tenant advocates looking at the strike force from the outside in are not the only ones who have voiced concerns. Steve Glaude, CEO of the Coalition of Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, scrutinized the strike force’s makeup during the second meeting on Feb. 12. Glaude expressed doubt about the prospect of an equitable debate given the lack of representation from tenants and legal aid.   

[Read more: OPINION: Outsiders and elites can’t guide DC to an equitable reopening]

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, one of three members of the D.C. Council included in the strike force, is also aware of the implications behind the lack of lived experience with rental housing among strike force members.   

“I did bring up my disappointment about the composition of the strike force and I didn’t feel there was a balance of voices representing tenants in that we do have some of the biggest real estate owners in our city on there … yet we really only have one tenant representative,” Silverman said. “I’m no longer a renter … I doubt there are very many renters [on the strike force].” 

Polly Donaldson, the chair of the strike force and the director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community, said she took these concerns into consideration, but believes that current tenant advocates and the addition of two new members — D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge Todd Edelman and Aurelie Mathieu from the Office of the Attorney General — is sufficient.  

“I think the [Office of the Attorney General], which has represented tenants in many court actions against bad actor landlords, I think their views will be very clearly represented,” Donaldson said over the phone. 

The big dogs: landlords, real-estate developers, and lobbyists

 

Still, advocates say the strike force is overwhelmingly skewed towards the interests of landlords and developers. “These aren’t even like small-time building owners, like people who may own one building or two and it’s their central means of income,” said Daniel Del Pielago, the organizing director of the grassroots organizing group Empower D.C., which was not represented on the strike force. “These are the big dogs in this world.” 

The Apartment and Office Building Association (AOBA) was represented by Vice President of Government Affairs Randi Marshall. AOBA’s member directory is only available to member organizations, but its board of directors is stacked with real-estate management companies including the executive vice president of Borger Management and the senior vice president of JBG Smith. Both Borger Management and JBG Smith are separately represented as housing providers. 

Mosqueda, of LEDC, has long worried that AOBA’s influence in shaping conversations related to rental housing does not benefit renters. 

“Any hearing we have, we see AOBA or the small landlord lobby say things that are not based on any factual research or factual data and somehow they still get to call the shots on what happens when they’re not the folks that are most affected,” Mosqueda said. 

The Small Multifamily Owners Association (SMOA) was represented by CEO Dean Hunter. SMOA is a self-described “trade group representing owners, investors, developers, managers, and suppliers of rental properties” focused on rent control and affordable housing stock.

In a November 2020 twitter thread, Allison Hrabar, an organizer with the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, characterized SMOA as “a lazy, cynical rebranding” of the Urban Commercial Realty Group (UCRG), of which Hunter was a manager for three years. UCRG has since transformed into KW Multifamily. An internet archive snapshot of UCRG’s website from October reveals a lobbying effort to allow for the filling of new eviction complaints during the eviction moratorium for “emergency and safety matters.” 

“SMOA was founded because openly advocating for evictions during a devastating pandemic was so unpopular that AOBA wouldn’t do it,” Hrabar said.  

Other members of the strike force who are considered housing providers include Tom Borger, CEO of Borger Management; Buwa Binitie of Dantes Partners and the D.C. Housing Finance Agency; and AJ Jackson, executive vice president of JBG Smith. 

Borger Management was found to be one of the top 10 D.C. landlords to file the most evictions in a report produced last year. During the strike force’s third meeting, Borger freely admitted to this. “I confess I’m a serial evictor,” he said. “We file a lot of L & T [landlord and tenant] cases.” 

In March, Borger Management also distributed flyers including a notice stating that “we will refuse to rent a rental unit to a person because the person will provide the rental payment, in whole or part, through a voucher for rental housing assistance provided by the District or federal government.” 

Denying housing to voucher holders is unlawful “source of income” discrimination under the D.C. Human Rights Act enforced by the Office of Human Rights. Borger Management has since responded to these allegations by citing a printing error on the flyer.

Binitie of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency and Dantes Partners, led the implementation of the New Communities Initiative from 2007 – 2009, an offshoot of the federal Hope VI program. The initiative is widely accepted as a complete failure for low-income renters. It has led to mass displacement of D.C. public housing residents and spurred redevelopment and gentrification without replacing the promised number of public housing units.    

[Read More: What privatizing DC public housing looks like so far]

Dantes Partners, “a local, urban economic development” corporation, is one of dozens of local developers that have donated millions of dollars in campaign contributions to District politicians and received more than $1 billion in tax breaks and other subsidies according to an investigative report by WAMU. Dantes Partners was one of four developers who received a combined $12 million in subsidies and gave $127,295 in political campaign contributions in exchange for a contract to develop affordable housing in the West End. Dantes Partners was also one of 6 developers who received $23 million in subsidies and gave $164,045 in political campaign contributions for the Hine Junior High School redevelopment in Eastern Market.    

In mid-2017, JBG Smith locked in a massive development deal with Amazon to create its Virginia HQ2. Housing activists expressed worry that the deal would exacerbate gentrification and the affordable housing crisis.   

In addition to these large developers, the D.C. Policy Center, represented on the strike force by Founding Executive Director Yesim Taylor as a housing policy research organization, took between $10,000 and $24,999 in contributions from both Borger Management and JBG Smith in 2019.  

A lingering affordable housing crisis

 

Between 2000 and 2016, the population of D.C.’s economically expanding areas grew by 19%, including a 201.8% increase in white residents. This trend was supplemented by the displacement of more than 30,000 Black residents according to the University of Minnesota Law School’s analysis in “American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century: Gentrification and Decline.” In addition, the median income of Black D.C. households in 2019 was $48,700, which is $101,000 lower than the median income for white D.C. households at the time ($149,700). This income and racially-based affordable housing crisis is rooted in pre-pandemic housing policy that prioritized newer, whiter, and wealthier residents over Black D.C. natives.  

[Read more: Bowser’s budget cuts funding for affordable housing. Advocates say DC’s Black residents will be left behind]

This lingering systemic failing, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has complicated the strike force’s priorities and made it difficult to center solutions for the impending wave of evictions.  

“We never addressed the pre-existing affordable housing crisis. If we had had appropriate affordable housing before this crisis hit — housing where rent was based on their income and they could recertify if they lost their job and reduce the rental obligations — we wouldn’t be in the situation where so many tenants in the District are facing displacement for non-payment,” Korber said. 

During the second strike force meeting on Feb. 12, Alex Baca of Greater Greater Washington voiced the need to differentiate between the needs of renters whose income is at the higher end of the Area Median Income scale, and the needs of extremely low-income households who earn 0-30% of the AMI. The District’s AMI, which is used to set qualifications for affordable housing programs, is very high: $88,200 for an individual, meaning that person can earn $70,000 and qualify for affordable housing programs that are reserved for people who earn 80% or less of the AMI.

photo of area median income rental housing programs

Housing programs provided to each area median income (AMI) range. Graphic courtesy of DHCD

Baca urged her fellow strike force members to “unify over a definition of affordability.”

Del Pielago, much like Baca, believes defining affordability before talking about policy prescriptions is important. 

“Affordable housing is a misnomer; affordable for who? Affordable at what level? … I don’t think that the city is going to replicate public housing, which is the only real affordable housing. It’s 30% of your income band, adjusted if you do lose your income,” Del Pielago said. “Unless they’re planning on doing something like that, it is not going to be real affordable housing.”

The impending eviction crisis

 

A report co-authored by Rosen last year — the same one that identified Borger Management as a serial eviction filer — found that evictions in D.C. were most often used as a threat. Only 5% of evictions filed in 2018 were carried out. The rest were withdrawn after rent was paid. Included in Rosen’s presentation to strike force members were striking facts such as that 57% of eviction filings in 2018 came from the majority-Black wards 7 and 8. The racialized disparity in those affected by hardship exacerbated by the pandemic has led to a sharp increase in renters of color applying for rental assistance. However, LEDC had 10 times more people apply for the Tenant Based Rental Assistance Program than were able to receive support from it, according to Mosqueda, the LEDC organizer. 

photo of neighborhood hotspots in eviction filing rates

Washington D.C. neighborhood hotspots in eviction filing rates in 2018. Graphic courtesy of Eva Rosen

There was broad consensus within the strike force that eviction court is dysfunctional, that evictions, in general, aggravate income insecurity, and that it makes economic sense to help keep people in their home rather than help a recently evicted family find a new home.

The strike force’s “Short-term recommendation #3” is the result of this consensus. It proposes the development and funding of an eviction diversion program with the goal of resolving disputes that can lead to eviction.  

However, some housing providers used their position on the strike force to protest late rents or highlight their compassionate eviction policy. 

“Tenants actually have ample time [to pay rent] based on recent laws that have been passed by the council … [that state] you can’t file [an eviction] for the first 10 days of the month,” said Binitie of Dantes Partners. Street Sense Media could find no record of this policy and consulted a tenants rights lawyer who said no such law has been passed by the D.C. Council.

“We are already providing housing at very very low rents compared to what the markets are recommending in certain neighborhoods,” Binitie continued. 

Tom Borger of Borger Management lamented the fact that Washington D.C. does not have a sheriff’s department that could more efficiently carry out evictions than the U.S. Marshals Service. 

Kay Pierson of the United Planning Organization reminded the strike force’s housing providers of the unprecedented context in which many D.C. tenants now find themselves.

“There had never been enough money for renters in distress, so what would happen is that the system would encourage tenants to wait until they’re in eviction status to apply for rental assistance so they would get priority,” Pierson said. “Pre-pandemic yes, maybe people come up with the money when they get an eviction notice, but post-pandemic the resources may not be there.” 

The D.C. Council has taken some important steps to protect tenants from evictions and provide easier access to rental assistance programs. In October 2020, the council passed the Omnibus Tenant Protection and Eviction Reform Measure and relaxed documentation requirements to access the District’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). 

[Read more: DC attorney general sues to uphold ban on filing eviction complaints during pandemic]

Polly Donaldson was optimistic that a coordinated effort between community-based organizations and local government officials to help tenants access federal and local rental assistance programs will make a significant impact on eviction protection. 

This past month, the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program allocated $200 million to help District residents earning less than 40% AMI. And on April 12, the District announced the creation of the Stronger Together by Assisting You Program (STAY), a $352 million rental assistance fund that replaces CHAP and includes all federal funds (the local ERAP fund is not included). District renters can apply for STAY funding at https://stay.dc.gov. (Information about all local assistance funds is available at coronavirus.dc.gov/rent.) 

The D.C. government has contracted with Deloitte to manage the online application system used to access these funds. However, housing activists have raised concerns that Bowser unilaterally appointed Deloitte to this role. Bowser’s 2019 inaugural committee took in nearly $1 million from Deloitte, as well as from Dantes Partners and JBG Smith. 

Housing activists and organizers on the ground say that these protections and rental assistance programs are not sufficient to keep tenants in their homes throughout the health crisis, nor as high unemployment persists afterward. 

Alternatives and next steps

 

All tenant advocates interviewed for this article said the lack of tenant input on the strike force has contributed to a lack of aggressive policy recommendations. 

Korber, the Legal Aid attorney, sees the efficacy in the continued use of local ERAP funds to assist renters, but also has doubts on a strategy based solely on rental assistance programs like ERAP. She worries about families who do not have internet access or those impeded by other barriers to entry, such as documentation requirements for proving financial hardship and the lack of language translation for the application to receive assistance.    

Hrabar, the Stomp Out Slumlords organizer, argues that the cancellation of rents and mortgages is a much more efficient solution that tackles the root of the problem rather than finding “more creative ways to collect debt from tenants.”  

“D.C. has the power to [cancel rent], they have the authority to do it and we know they have the money to do it,” Hrabar said, referring to the District’s $552 million budget surplus for fiscal year 2020. “And it wouldn’t put more burden on D.C. residents, it would free up D.C. residents to stop worrying about this and get back to be being able to live safe and productive lives.”

Hrabar looks at the success of federal stimulus checks, direct cash payments, as a blueprint to getting people assistance in times of crisis. However, the absence of tenant representation on the strike force has silenced the growing demand to “cancel rent” from thousands of District renters. 

[Read more: Protesters call for Biden’s domestic policy chief to cancel rent]

“Tenants on the ground who aren’t on this task force are the ones that know what they need,” Korber said. “They know that we’re facing a wave of evictions in the District like nothing we’ve ever seen before and I think that the Council, whether they want to call it ‘cancel rent’ or whether they want to call it something else, is going to have to address the fact that they’re going to have to come up with the money needed to keep tenants in their homes.” 

The 2016 Housing Preservation Strike Force went through a deliberation process that resulted in six recommendations, all of which were eventually adopted by Mayor Bowser. The current strike force will undergo a similar process of recording all recommendations within a final report to be reviewed by the mayor’s administration for policy adaptation. 

However, before the final report can be released, complete consensus between strike force members is needed. Once all current disagreements on the language of the recommendations are settled, Polly Donaldson and her team at the Department of Housing and Community Development will construct and release the report to the mayor and general public. 

The last fifteen minutes of each strike force meeting were left for public comments and concerns. However, since the scheduled meetings have ended there is no longer a direct mechanism by which the public can offer comments on the recommendations. 

If you wish to offer input, DHCD can be reached by phone at (202) 442-7200 or by email at [email protected] and information for members of the D.C. Council Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalizations is available at https://tinyurl.com/dc-council-housing.

 

 

 

photo of preliminary recommendations

The strike force’s 10 preliminary policy recommendations. Graphic by Ben Gutman


Correction (4.19.21)

This article has been updated to reflect that the program the Latino Economic Development Center received 10 times more applicants for than they had funding to serve was the Tenant Based Rental Assistance Program. It had originally been listed as the Coronavirus Housing Assistance Program, which did not provide funding to, or through, LEDC.