Despite the fact that more than half of Washington's residents live in apartments and rental houses, most members of the D.C. City Council said yesterday they had only "skimmed" a 73-page bill passed Wednesday by the Council's housing committee that would allow landlords to raise rents next year by as much as 15 per cent.
About half of the 13-member Council said they had not read enough of the bill to comment knowledgeably about it. A section-by-section analysis explaining the rent control bill in non-technical terms still had not been prepared as of late yesterday by the council's housing committee staff to be distributed to Council members.
"That's probably why some of the Council members don't know what the bill says," Council member Marion Barry (D-at large) said.
While Council members said they had not studied the bill in detail, there appears to be a growing sentiment among them that several provisions of the proposed rent control legislation, including the rent increase, are not in tenants' best interests.
"I've only skimmed the bill, but it appears that the bill would grant too much of an increase," said Council member Polly Shackleton (D-three).
"There are sections of the bill that are not definitive, sections that appear much too vague," she said. "This is one of the most important bills to come before the council and I have some serious concerns that need to be explored."
While members of the Council expressed their "concern" about the bill, tenant and landlord groups both issued statements opposing the legislation for different reasons. The tenants said the increases allowed by the bill would be even more than the landlord have lobbied for while the landlords said the bill contains other provisions to which they are firmly opposed.
Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Six), chairperson of the Council's housing committee, has called the new proposal a "compromise" between an earlier bill drafted by her and another bill drafted by Council member Arrington Dixon (D-four). The Dixon bill had support from the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, landlords trade association.
Winter said she believes the new bill represents the best efforts of her staff, and that it is a bill "which the housing committee feels can survive the extreme political tests of the full Council, mayoral review and congressional scrutiny."
But despite Winter's optimism about the bill's chances of passage, several Council members said they strongly oppose it while tenant groups are circulating petitions and lobbying against it. The D.C. corporation counsel's office has issued an analysis that questions the validity of some of the bill's provisions, including a rent subsidy program for middle-income tenants.
Under the proposed subsidy program, tenants who pay more than 35 per cent of their gross incomes for rent (and who do no receive other subsidies) would receive rent rebates of up to 10 per cent that would be paid by landlords. The landlords would, in turn, receive property tax credits from the city for assistance given to their tenants.
But the D.C. corporation counsel questioned the legality of requiring landlords to act, in effect, as agents of the government responsible for administration of the subsidy program.
The bill passed Wednesday by the Council housing committee does not address itself to another potential problem: misrepresentation by landlords of the amount of subsidy they are giving their tenants.
A spokesman for AOBA, the landlords association, criticized the proposed rent subsidy program because of the paperwork involved.
"The amount of paperwork this bill will create is unbelievable," said Caroline Lewis of AOBA. "This paperwork will be difficult for landlords."
In addition, Lewis criticized the proposed subsidy program because it is aimed at middle-income rather than low-income tenants. "This bill is not what it appears to be," Lewis said. "It's too little, too late; it's misleading, contradictory and ambiguous."
For their part, the Citywide Housing Coalition and other tenant groups criticized the bill because of the size of the recent increases allowed and because the bill begins the process of decontrolling vacant and luxury units.
"This bill is giving landlords more than they sought," said Evelyn Onwuachi of the Housing Coalition.
On Monday, the Council will hold a work session to decide whether the housing committee's controversial rent control will be sent back to committee or brought up for formal consideration.