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Council strengthens rent control
(Published June 12, 2006)

By ERICA PITTS
Staff Writer

Allegations that some residential landlords are rushing to raise rents before the city’s new rent control law takes effect have prompted a key member of the D.C. City Council to pledge to initiate emergency legislative relief for tenants if the reports prove true.

Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, who chairs the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, told The Common Denominator that he is working with both tenants and tenant advocacy groups to determine whether unjust rent increases are occurring.

Although at this point, no one can verify whether a significant number of improper increases are occurring, attorney David Conn of the Tenant Action Network points out that, even with rent control," people still have a fear of rents being raised."

Jim McGrath of the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition said that he is unsure of the validity of the rent allegations, but asserts that it would be a "stupid move by landlords [because it would] question their faith if found true." McGrath also mentioned that it is "suspicious" that landlords "go into something like this without barking."

The new, stronger and streamlined rent control law that was passed unanimously June 6 by D.C. City Council is awaiting the mayor’s signature, then must undergo a routine congressional review period before going into effect. The law will apply to about 100,000 apartments in the city.

The new law will abolish hard-to-understand rent ceilings and rent ceiling adjustments. While the provision initially caused controversy, tenant advocates endorsed the final version of the legislation.

Graham noted that "many times, the ceilings were greater than [tenants’] rent." According to the Tenant and Affordable Housing Advocate Statement on Rent Control Reform, signed by 23 tenant advocacy organizations, rent ceilings often "exceeded rents charged by 100 percent and more." With the new law, according to the advocacy groups, "annual rent increases of Consumer Price Index plus 2 percent will be based on rent charged and lower annual rent increases for most renters."

Additionally, the new law will cap annual rent increases at the CPI for elderly and disabled tenants, limit the frequency of annual rent increases to once per year and cap vacancy rent increases at 30 percent.

Graham said he is "proud of what a huge coalition of people have accomplished" in revising the city’s current rent control law.

Betty Sellers of the Tenant Action Network said she is "incredibly thrilled and amazed" about the "meaningful change … made to the bill to help tenants." She gives "incredible accolades to Jim Graham for sticking to it and fighting for the tenants." The tenant group’s Conn called the new law the "most significant pro-tenant legislation passed since the 1975 Rental Housing Act."

Despite early controversy over the elimination of rent ceilings and the cap on annual rent increases in the initially proposed legislation, Conn said "overall, this bill is better how it ended up."

Linda Leaks, co-director and tenant organizer for Empower DC, said she is "happy for some reform," but insists that when it comes to the 30 percent cap on vacancy rent increases, "a fairer percentage would have been better." She said her group will "continue to fight for more tenants."

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for the Apartment and Office Building Association, acknowledged that during the eight-month process of crafting the new law, both Graham and landlords "concluded that they didn’t like the bill." Bullock said that if the initial version of the bill had passed "it would force buildings to sell" because a lack of sufficient revenue would prevent building owners from meeting expenses such as utility bills and property taxes. Bullock said that situation "99 percent of the time" can "lead to the building of condos and residents [that] have nowhere to go and no resources" to turn to.

"AOBA convinced Graham that building owners need return on investments," Bullock said.

In other action, the city council also approved a law June 6 that gives tenants the right to organize and requires that landlords allow tenants to post meeting notices, hand out leaflets, put information under the doors of fellow tenants. The law also allows tenant organizers access to apartment buildings.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator