Rent control omnibus legislation gets hearing with sharp divide between tenant advocates and housing providers
Over more than eight hours, 173 public witnesses — including members of tenant advocacy groups, landlords, housing provider organizations — testified at a Nov. 9 D.C. Council hearing for two bills: the “Rent Stabilization Program Reform and Expansion Amendment Act of 2020” — also known as the omnibus bill — and the “Hardship Petition Reform Amendment Act of 2020.”
The omnibus bill has been championed by the Reclaim Rent Control coalition, a campaign to expand rent control to protect more District tenants, close existing loopholes that benefit landlords and keep rent-controlled housing affordable.
The committee has held multiple hearings on other sets of rent control related bills in 2020 to address possible solutions to loopholes and provide relief, but neither tenant advocates nor landlords were satisfied with the proposals. Landlords said the bills would hurt small housing providers who are already struggling and tenants said the proposed changes were insufficient.
The omnibus bill would be a more comprehensive permanent effort to help close loopholes by setting new guidelines for capital improvements, eliminate vacancy increases, limiting hardship petitions at 5% per year instead of the 12% return on investments that landlords are currently entitled to and banning the use of voluntary agreements by landlords to pressure residents into accepting improvements that result in future rent increases.
Yesim Sayin Taylor, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, said that “there are currently 72,900 rent-controlled units in the District and if the Council enacts the bill today the number of rent-controlled units would immediately increase by 13,000.”
The legislation would also help those whose struggle with rent has been exacerbated by the public health emergency. “In mid-October, an estimated 34,000 D.C. tenants, 12%, were behind on rent,” said Eliana Golding, a policy analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “This bill under consideration would help disrupt displacement and evictions.”
During the hearing, housing companies and individual landlords said the omnibus legislation would go too far and would hurt small landlords who are struggling to pay their mortgages right now. Dean Hunter, CEO of the Small Multifamily Owners Association, called the proposed legislation “reckless” and “radical” in his testimony, adding that tenant advocates have “practically intimidated members of this committee to hold hearings.”
Reclaim Rent Control coalition had been encouraging tenants to testify before the hearing to show support for the Omnibus legislation. The campaign has held virtual workshops to give people advice on how to testify and why the legislation is necessary. They also joined forces with the Sunrise Movement and D.C. Jobs for Justice to hold a rally Oct. 27 at Freedom Plaza. Close to a hundred people turned out to bring awareness to the hearing.
“About half of D.C. [residents] are renters and about a third of them last April said that they can’t afford rent, which is ridiculous. No one should be worried about paying rent during a pandemic,” said Kush Kharod, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, at the rally. “We believe that housing is a right, so this brings awareness to the Omnibus bill.”
Property management companies in the District such as CIH Properties and Lenkin Company Management also came out to give statements. Fourteen representatives from Borger Management, Inc. spoke in opposition to the two proposed bills, saying it will make it more difficult to operate and maintain properties in the District. Borger Management has been responsible for pushing evictions in the District without properly notifying tenants of the eviction proceeding. A recent report led to the D.C. Council passing an amendment that requires photographic evidence that an eviction notice has been filed and delivered to the tenant.
John Ritz, president of WC Smith, a property management company, testified on his opposition to the proposed legislation, saying the “negative economic impact will be enormous” and investment in the city will drop. WC Smith filed more evictions against tenants than any other company in the District from 2014-2019, most of which were against low-income residents in Ward 7 and 8.
“With gentrification happening across the city, the government has catered to those with money and have pushed those like myself out,” said Beatrice Evans, president of the Triangle View Tenants Association. “We built this city, we run this city, and we maintain this city.”
Public witness Catherine Heinhold said, “loopholes in the current rent control law accelerate the gentrification of our neighborhoods, break up communities and lead to a net loss of affordable housing. We need laws which encourage landlords to remember they are not simply in a business venture but are providing a service that is a basic human need.”
Last year, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition released a study that showed the effects of gentrification in the District: more than 20,000 Black residents were pushed out of the city from 2000-2013 as a result of displacement, and D.C. had the highest percentage of gentrification of the cities analyzed. The District remained one of the most-gentrified cities, dropping from first to thirteenth, in a second study NCRC released in June that analyzed the years 2012-2017.
The hearing on the omnibus legislation was continued Nov. 16 for the testimony of government witnesses. DHCD Director Polly Donaldson agreed that rent control laws need to be revised. “While we recently supported the extension of the protections of the current rent control statute for another decade, we also recognize that the statute is long overdue to be updated and reformed for it to continue to effectively meet its statutory purposes,” she said.
Donaldson supported eliminating voluntary agreements and vacancy increases but did not fully support passing all measures included in the legislation. “If all of the provisions of the omnibus bill are put forth then we have really made it so that it is going to be very challenging in a normal economy [for the rental housing market],” Donaldson said.
Chief Tenant Advocate Johanna Shreve, backed the proposals, “The District now has almost a half-century of experience with rent control,” Shreve said. “In all those years we have yet to see evidence that, as a general matter, the District’s rent-controlled properties fare poorly in terms of profitability or that the rent control law discourages investment in the District’s rental housing market.”