Tenants and housing activists voiced opposition to new rent increases during hearings last week before the D.C. Rental Accommodations Commission (RAC).
Witnesses said hikes in rent ceilings would be a financial hardship for many city residents and raise rental levels to a point that would make more buildings eligible for conversion to condominiums or cooperatives.
"Rents have increased 19.6 percent in D.C. (in the last five years) and another increase would impose a hardship," Evelyn Onwuachi, director of the City Wide Housing Coalition, a tenants' organization, told the commission. She contended that "wages are not increasing as fast as rents."
Myles Glasgow, an attorney and director of University Legal Services, a nonprofit organization that represents tenants in landlord-tenant disputes, urged the commission "to be prepared to make a statement on the impact of the minimum wage on housing. Regulated rents are not staying at a level that minimum-wage families can afford."
Glasgow pointed out that a study released in January by the Council of Governments (COG) reported that "22 percent of the D.C. population pays more than 35 percent of its income for rent."
RAC is required by the Rental Accommodations Act to file an annual report with the City Council, recommending whether there should be an adjustment in the rent ceilings imposed under the city rent control legislation. The commission gathers data on the quantity and quality of city housing and considers the operating cost ratio of rental housing, which is computed by dividing the average operating expenses for all having accommodations in the city by the average rental income of all housing accommodations.
The commission can recommend a group of increases, a single percentage increase or no increases at all. Since rent control legislation went into effect, the City Council has approved rent increases in 1973, 1974, 1976 and 1978.
The commission recommended the 2 to 10 percent, across-the-board figure for rent increases instituted last sping by the City Council. The amount of the increase to the tenants was based on the utility costs that they pay. Tenants who paid no utility or air conditioning bills received a 10 percent rent increase, while those who paid all of their own bills received only a 2 percent increase.
Witnesses at the hearing expressed support for individual rent increases based on the landlord's rate of return, rather than the across-the-board increases that were approved this year.
"I strongly recommend that you look at the possibility of no automatic rent increases," said Tim Siegel, a tenant organizer and writer for Shelter-force, a national housing publication. "Automatic increases go against the idea of what rent control is all about. It's unfair to a tenant. A 5 to 10 percent increase changes his budget."
"I really don't think there should be any across-the-board increases next year," said Julie Wall, a resident of 2633 Adams Mill Rd. NW and a spokesman for the tenants' association of the three apartment buildings at 2611, 2627 and 2633 Adams Mill Rd.
"By guaranteeing landlords automatic increases and profits, we're treating them like a public utility. If the commission does that, then there should be a ceiling on their profits," she said.
Gloria Corn, of 4707 Connecticut Ave, NW, cofounder of the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing, said a rent increase "will put more buildings into rent levels so that many can be converted to condominiums or cooperatives."
Quoting figures provided by the Neighborhood Improvement Administration of the city Department of Housing and Community Development, Corn said "3,500 units in Ward 3 in the last 22 months have gotten permission to convert to condominiums.
Several tenants expressed anger that only a few of the commission members attended the hearing. Marie Nahikian was one of three commission members present for the morning session of the hearings and the only commissioner who was there for the afternoon session.
"Any (commission) member who does not see housing as a basic human right should resign. They called the hearings and set the date," said Julie Wall.
Commission members are paid $50 per meeting, including hearings, are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.
The hearings are scheduled to continue at 10 a.m. tomorrow in the City Council chambers in the District Building.
Although the commission report is due Nov. 15, Paul Crumrine, the commission attorney, said it would not be ready until early December.