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D.C. Council Repeals Landlords' Exemption

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The D.C. Council approved emergency legislation yesterday to immediately repeal a law that gave property owners an exemption from the city's strong tenants' rights laws if their buildings were vacant.

The exemption allowed property owners to avoid paying costly fees and getting the approval of tenants to turn rent-controlled apartments into condominiums. A Washington Post series on the issue found that landlords often failed to make repairs as a way to empty the buildings.

The exemption created a "perverse incentive," said Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who joined Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) in introducing the legislation.

Graham said The Post's series spurred him to act, though Cheh said the problem had previously been brought to the council's attention and she had held a hearing on the issue last year.

"They may be a minority, but the harms are extensive," she said of the landlords who abused the exemption.

Cheh said consideration will be given only to applications filed before April 1.

"We repealed a positive incentive for people to empty buildings sometimes by very illegal methods," Graham said. He added that the legislation encourages landlords to create and maintain affordable housing by eliminating conversion fees if they do so.

"We turned it on its head," Graham said. "Instead of working against the people, the law works for the people."

Previous efforts to repeal the law failed, he said, because developers argued that they needed the exemptions to maintain affordable housing. "Of course, the bad guys took over from there," he said.

The repeal of the exemption for landlords was one of several pieces of legislation that moved through the chambers yesterday, with other votes taken on vendors and preschoolers.

Longtime vendors who sold souvenirs and food outside RFK Stadium will have preference outside the new Washington Nationals ballpark. The council unanimously approved emergency legislation that authorizes the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to establish at least 40 spots for the licensed vendors within the month.

About 20 vendors picketed outside Nationals Park last weekend during exhibition and Opening Day games to protest their initial exclusion.

"With 80-some home games remaining, the opportunity here is substantial," said Graham, who co-introduced the legislation with Cheh and Barry. Other vendors will participate in a lottery.

The ban on vendors at the new ballpark was the latest episode in a strained relationship between the DCRA and vendors, who are worried that efforts to diversify the selection of foods and goods on their carts could eventually end their businesses. The council gave final approval yesterday to permanent legislation that allows the DCRA to create new policies.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) expressed concern that the preference given to vendors could allow them to permanently set up in those spots daily, preventing the changes the city is trying to make.

Cheh said, however, that the legislation gives the DCRA the flexibility to use judgment on what would work best.

In other business, about 2,000 3- and 4-year-olds would be enrolled into early childhood education programs under the Pre-K Enhancement and Expansion Act. The programs would have a more rigorous curriculum and more educated instructors. The council is expected to give final approval next month.

The initial approval follows a national trend and is a major accomplishment for Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who made universal pre-kindergarten a priority.

Older students also got support from council members yesterday with unanimous approval of emergency legislation that gives 17-year-olds the right to register to vote if they will be 18 by an election.

With the emergency legislation introduced by council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), D.C. teens who turn 18 in the coming months could be eligible to vote in the September local primary and the November general election.

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