Washington's rent-control laws hang in the balance

As legislators consider extending city’s rent-control laws for another decade, housing advocates ask for more

Affordable housing advocates are taking to the streets of Washington, D.C. this weekend, in an attempt to push D.C. council members to adopt stronger rent-control laws ahead of a Dec. 31, 2020 reauthorization deadline.

“Under the banner of “Reclaim Rent Control,” the activists want limitations on annual rent increases to apply to a larger swath of D.C. buildings and for loopholes in the current laws to be closed or tightened,” read an article by Curbed Washington D.C.

The District’s current rent-control laws limit rent hikes to 4.3 percent. The current cap is 2 percent plus the consumer price index, which is now 2.3 percent. Much like California’s recently-passed Tenant Protection Act, D.C.’s rent-control laws offer exemptions for specific properties:

  • Federally or District-subsidized rental units
  • Units built after 1975
  • Buildings owned by an individual landlord with no more than four units
  • Units that were vacant when the Act took effect in 1985
  • Department of Housing and Community Development-funded housing accommodations

The current reauthorization bill headed up by councilwoman Anita Bonds would maintain the Act as-is, except for a more stringent “vacancy cap.” Currently, landlords can raise rents for vacant units by as much as 30 percent. Councilwoman Bonds wants to reduce the cap to 10 percent.

“It is clear that both the 30 percent allowable vacancy increase and the fact that comparable and non comparable units are differentiated in District housing law were not based on policy, but rather were based on politics,” Bonds said in a report.

“The Committee must question a policy that is arbitrary in its application and without any ‘dollars and cents’ justification.”

However, advocates say the vacancy cap isn’t enough as rising housing costs coupled with a 38 percent decrease in rent-controlled units are pushing renters to streets.

“As of September 2019, Washington, D.C., was the 6th most expensive city to be a renter in the U.S.,” read a manifesto on Reclaim Rent Control’s website. “There are over 40,000 people on the waitlist for subsidized housing, and over 6,000 people are sleeping on D.C. streets or in shelters each night.”

“Almost half of D.C. residents pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, and one in five spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent,” they added.

Advocates want the council to strike the exemption for landlords with four-unit apartment buildings and extend coverage to buildings built between 1975 and 2005.

Next, they want the council to adopt a “dynamic eligibility date” that makes new builds rent-control eligible 15 years after being rented at market rate. Furthermore, they want landlords of market-rate units to be limited to one rent hike per year.

Lastly, they want the council to close several loopholes and limit annual rent increases to the consumer price index rate.

“The Reclaim Rent Control campaign calls for the end of such abusive practices that reward landlords for neglecting rental housing,” the coalition wrote in a public statement provided to The Washington Post.

“Housing activists have been trying to make changes to the rent-control laws for years,” coalition member Victoria Goncalves told the Post. “The fact that rent control needs to be reauthorized is the perfect opportunity for us to say the status quo is not enough.”

“The status quo was written in the ’70s, and we need to reissue it so that it reflects what the issues in D.C. are today,” she added.”

The D.C. Council has yet to set a date for the reauthorization vote.

Email Marian McPherson.