Landlords going before the District of Columbia Rental Accommodations Office with a petition to raise rents are twice as successful as tenants going before the same board trying to block rent raises, according to a study by a consumer group pushing for increased tenant rights.
The Center for Study of Responsive Law, a Ralph Nader group, says part of the reason for the landlords' success is that landlords are represented by attorneys twice as often as tenants are.
In response, Nader and the center propose that cities across the country create tenant-funded resource centers that can provide legal assistance to renters.
"The 70 million American who rent their homes are one of the largest relatively powerless groups in the nation," said Nader. "Tenants too often suffer the injustices of a one-sided arrangement with their landlord, for example unreasonble rents for poorly serviced apartments, misused security deposits and incomprehensible leases. These tenants need expert assistance to help them curb landlord abuses."
Nader's proposal offers a model for legislation to be adopted by municipalities. The proposed Tenant Resource and Advocacy Center (TRAC) would be financed by $6 a year from each renter in that municipality.
Established on a citywide basis, TRAC would be governed by tenant members "through a democratically elected board of directors and would be required to keep in close touch with the membership," according to the poposal. "It could push for reforms of landlord-tenant laws, publish handbooks to inform tenants of their rights, or provide legal help to individual tenants," Nader added.
"We used the Washington experience as an example because there is already a good rent control system here," said Josh Spielberg, who developed the proposal for TRAC, but has since left to work in the Agriculture Department.
"The problem in D.C. is that the system is too complicated," he added in an interview, "which goes to show that there is a need for legal help on both sides. But right now, the landlords can afford that help much more than the tenant."
According to studies by Nader's center, landlords bringing a petition before the Rental Accormodations Office (RAO) (usually requesting a rent increase) were represented by lawyers 41 percent of the time, while the tenant involved had councel only 16 percent of the time. When tenants brought complaints of high rents before the RAO, they still had attorneys with them only 16 percent of the time, while the landlord they were challenging had legal counsel in 35 percent of those cases.
Landlord petitions received favorable decisions from the RAO administrator 77 percent of the time, compared to 46 percent favorable decisions for tenant petitions.
The pattern continued even more dramatically when one or the other party appealed an adverse decision. Appeals by landlords on their petitions were successful 83 percent of the time, while tenants were successful on appeal only 45 percent of the time.
While they go no further than the numbers, and make no judgements on the court rulings, the consumer advocates speculate that the problem may be even more severe than the numbers indicate.
"As is also the case in landlord-tenant courd," the proposal states, "landlords are frequently represented by lawyers who specialize in this area, while tenants are likely to be represented by law students or less experienced lawyers. In addition, landlords often rtain an accountant or other management expert to help make their case."
"Most tenant organizations see rent control as a short-term solution," said Spielburg, "with the long-term goal a good permanent housing policy and good advocacy for renters. This program can actually help municipalities move away from formalized rent control but to the advantage of the renter."
TRAC centers' funding would come through landlords, who would collect the $6 yearly fee with rents and pay it to the center at the same time they pay their landlord registration fees to their respective cities.
Landlords who own four or fewer units would be exempted, as they are, for example, from rent control in the District.
Although the TRACs would be created by city laws that would designate the proper funding mechanism, the centers would act independently of govenment control.
In cities where landlords do not have to register, some other method of payment would be developed, Spielberg said. "Maybe we can begin the landlord registration process in that city, or have the landlords pay the tenant center directly."
Tenants who do not want to help fund the center can easily receive a refund," said a press from the Nader group accompanying in the proposal.