Mayor Urges Linking Income, Rent Control

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday called for changes to the city's rent control law that would for the first time consider the income of prospective tenants seeking to lease rent-controlled apartments.

Williams (D) said "means testing'' would ensure that the below-market rate rentals would go to those most in need. The proposal, which needs the D.C. Council's approval, would apply only to new renters and require that tenants' incomes be certified so they pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent.

Williams said rent control is a "limited, precious benefit and ought to be distributed equitably." Williams said tinkering with rent control is so politically charged that if he were running for a third term, "I probably wouldn't be saying this."

The city's rent control law covers about 100,000 apartments. There are 140,000 private apartments in the District, according to a city landlord association. The city's rent-control law applies to buildings that have five or more units and were built before 1975.

The council is considering the most extensive changes to the rent-control law in two decades. Council proposals would cap yearly rent increases, change the way vacant rent-controlled apartments are priced and make it easier to form tenant associations and to receive information on how rents are computed.

Williams has asked that his proposal for means testing be considered when the council's consumer and regulatory affairs committee meets tomorrow to decide whether to send the rent-control bills to the full council for a vote.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), the chief author of the rent-control bills and chairman of the committee, said revisions are needed to help preserve affordable housing in the city. He cited a study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute estimating that 15,000 units renting for $500 to $1,000 a month went off the market between 2000 and 2004.

Graham said that the committee will consider the mayor's proposals but that he doubts the means test would do what Williams says it would.

"In many cases," Graham said, the mayor's plan to eliminate rent ceilings "would mean higher rents for occupied apartments.''

Critics of the current law say rent ceilings, the maximum landlords can charge by law, are sometimes much higher than market rent and have, in essence, removed thousands of apartments from rent control. Because the ceilings are often higher than the market rent, the law effectively provides no protection for some tenants.

One of Graham's proposals would eliminate a provision in the law that ties rent increases on newly vacant apartments to a complex formula based on tenant turnover. Graham said building owners have used the vacancy adjustment rule to "turn affordable buildings into luxury apartments.''

Graham's bill also would limit increases on occupied apartments to 8 percent a year -- 4 percent for seniors and people with disabilities -- as long as the increases would not exceed the rent ceilings.

On newly vacant apartments, the bill would generally limit any rent increase to 30 percent of the previous rent.

Apartment building owners say the ability to charge market rents for newly vacant apartments has allowed them to renovate and improve their buildings and preserve low rents for existing tenants.

Shaun Pharr, a spokesman for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, said yesterday that the organization supports the mayor's proposal for its simplicity and fairness.

"It's just much better balanced,'' he said. Under Graham's plan, "it would be years before you could recover what you invest in order to re-rent the unit.''

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