From the Field: DC Advocates Urge City Council to Strengthen Rent Control Requirements

Local advocates in Washington, DC are collaborating to push the DC Council to strengthen the city’s rent control policies to protect low income renters in the District. The city first enacted rent control in 1973 in an effort to assist the city’s elderly and low income renters. Currently the District’s rent control applies to buildings with five or more units built before 1975. Since 2006 when rent control laws were last amended, the city’s population has grown and rents have soared. The weaknesses of the city’s rent control policy, which allow for rent increases under a variety of conditions, have become more apparent as the rental market has tightened.

A coalition of advocates comprised of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED), an NLIHC partner, the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC), the Legal Aid Society, Jews United for Justice, the Legal Counsel for the Elderly, Bread for the City, and other groups are supporting the DC Council’s efforts to strengthen rent control by closing some of the existing loopholes to secure the city’s affordable housing stock and protect low income renters who rely on modest rents to stay in their homes.

The District’s existing rent control requirements include several conditions under which property owners can increase rents, including the implementation of fixed annual increases, “vacancy increases,” and “hardship increases.” Extremely low income renters in DC - 81% of whom are housing cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their incomes on their housing - suffer these increases most acutely, and many are forced from their homes.

Under current rent control law, the District’s Rental Housing Commission sets a rent-control Consumer Price Index (CPI), which determines the rate by which property owners can increase rents annually. In most cases, property owners can increase rents by the CPI plus 2%. Annual rent increases for the elderly and tenants with a disability are limited to CPI.  The coalition of rent control advocates have called on the DC Council to eliminate the additional 2% increase, which LEDC notes “is already slowly eroding the affordability of rent controlled apartments.”

Property owners can also increase rents by between 10 and 30% when a vacancy occurs, depending on other conditions. Therefore, even if a unit has remained affordable during a renter’s tenure, that unit may be lost to the city’s overall affordable housing stock when the renter moves. The opportunity to implement a vacancy increase can also incentivize property owners to empty units through eviction or delayed maintenance, resulting in uninhabitable homes. Advocates argue the vacancy increases are “extraordinary” and should be reduced or eliminated.

Finally, the city’s rent control laws allow landlords to petition the government for hardship increases if their return on investment for the property is less than 12% (a rate of return last changed during a period of high interest rates in the early 1980s). The law does not limit the size of the hardship increase and allows landlords to raise rents conditionally by the full amounts listed in their petitions, at times more than 100%, if the city does not adjudicate their requests within 90 days. The conditional increase stays in place until the full adjudication of the petition, which sometimes takes years. Residents and many tenant advocates see the conditional hardship increase as exploitative and contrary to the intent of rent control as owners frequently use it to force residents out and increase profits in gentrifying areas.

This fall members of the DC Council, spurred by the rent control coalition’s advocacy, took additional steps to protect the rights of tenants and the stability of rental housing in DC. The rent control coalition worked with Councilmember Anita Bonds to reduce or eliminate the hardship and vacancy increases, as well as the 2% increase allowed on top of the annual CPI increase. Ms. Bonds, chair of the Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, sponsored several interconnected affordable housing bills. Her proposals would adjust the annual rent control increase from CPI plus 2% to just CPI, eliminate the vacancy increase, and make the 5% cap on the hardship increase permanent.  (In 2014, the DC Council voted to cap the hardship increase at 5%, but the cap is temporary.  A permanent cap was recently passed by the Council and awaits the mayor’s signature.) Advocates testified to the DC Council about the importance of these protections and are hopeful most will pass by the end of the current Council session on December 31. The measures would help curb the rising costs of rental housing in the District and protect the low income renters who suffer its effects most acutely.

“CNHED and the other members of the coalition of rent control advocates are thankful for Councilmember Bonds’ leadership on these issues and are excited that so many members of the Council support strengthening the District’s rent control laws,” stated CNHED President and CEO Steve Glaude.