By Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
D.C. Council members Jim Graham and Mary M. Cheh called yesterday for emergency legislation to repeal a 28-year-old provision in District law that they say encourages property owners to drive tenants from rent-controlled apartments.
Vowing to crack down on abusive landlords, the council members said they will propose ending the blanket use of "vacancy exemptions," which allow landlords who empty their buildings to convert to condominiums without tenant approval or paying thousands of dollars in fees.
Graham (D-Ward 1) and Cheh (D-Ward 3) said they would propose the change at the council's April 1 meeting. If approved, the change would take effect immediately. Cheh said she will push for a permanent repeal later this year.
The council members are considering whether developers who turn long-vacant, blighted properties into affordable housing could continue to claim exemptions.
"The exemption is just too great an incentive for landlords to force tenants out of their homes by coercion or just by letting the building become uninhabitable," Cheh said. "The temptation appears too great. I don't want the law to provide that incentive anymore."
The District has one of the strongest tenant-rights laws in the nation. It allows renters to vote on whether apartments convert to condominiums and requires landlords to pay a fee on the sale of new condominium units to help displaced families find homes. Vacant buildings are exempt.
In the past four years, landlords emptied more than 200 buildings across the city. Using vacancy exemptions, they have drawn $328 million in condominium sales so far while saving $16 million in conversion fees, The Washington Post reported in a series of articles published this week.
The city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs routinely awarded exemptions despite widespread evidence that landlords had issued mass eviction notices or allowed apartments to rot without basic maintenance.
The council earlier repealed the exemption, but the repeal was put on hold after developers complained.
Graham said the exemptions put tenants in danger by encouraging landlords to "ignore a building's needs -- let the electricity be turned off, let the water be turned off, don't do any repairs."
"No law that does that," he said, "is worthy to be in our D.C. Code."
Not every landlord who received a vacancy exemption had trouble with tenants. In some cases, tenants accepted money to leave or bought into a new condominium complex at below-market prices.
But the Post investigation found more than half of the buildings that received exemptions had housing code violations recorded in city records. Among the thousands of violations were citations for no heat or electricity, cracked walls, broken stoves and leaking roofs.
At the same time, some landlords emptied buildings by sending tenants urgent letters and questionable eviction notices.
In the past four years, the newspaper found, nearly three-quarters of the landlords who received permission to begin converting apartment buildings into condominiums did so through a vacancy exemption, not a vote by tenants, as the law intended.
"We're going to take care of this," Cheh said.