Apartments are subject to the District of Columbia rent control legislation if the landlord owns five or more rental units in the city. An incorrect figure was reported in last week's District Weekly.
Three months late, a report on whether rent ceilings in the District should be raised, lowered or left the same will be submitted to the City Council in the near future.
Prepared by the Rental Accommodations Office (RAO), which administers the city rent control program, the report was presented last week to members of the Rental Accommodations Commission. The commission will consider the findings, which have not been made public, and is expected to forward its recommendations to the council by the end of the month. The report was due Nov. 15.
Officials at the RAO said they did not have enough money or manpower to finish the study earlier.
Apartments are covered by rent control if the landlord owns four or more rental units in the city.
A second report, on the effects of evictions of low- and moderate-income tenants from 1974 to 1978, and the extent of citizen dislocation as a result, also was due at the end of 1978 but still has not been sent to the City Council. It, too, has been delayed because of a shortage of money and staff members, according to RAO officials.
Inadequate funding and a backlog of work are only two problems that have plagued the RAO, which is responsible to the mayor's office.
The office has been criticized by both landlords and tenants during the past year, who charge that a high turnover of employes, lost hearing evidence, inefficiency, administrative mismanagement and a long wait for decisions have been common occurrences, and that the staff is not doing a good job in overseeing the city rent control program.
"The City Council passes the law and doesn't consider the cost allocation that it involves," said Raymond Howar, president of the Washington Board of Realtors and a landlord member of the Rental Accommodations Commission. The commission is the appeals body for the Rental Accommodations Office. "RAO said it needs $3 or $4 million to administer the law and we've operated at less than a million. We need additional and more competent staff."
The Rental Accommodations Office employs about 60 persons and handles about 100 cases a month, chiefly landlord petitions for rent increases and tenant appeals for rent rollbacks and rebates. Owners can ask for rent hikes if they are making less than an 8 percent rate of return on their investment in a building. Tenant petitions usually are based on housing code violations or decreases in apartment services.
Late last year Bowles Ford, the rent administrator, asked the Department of Housing and Community Development for funds to finish both reports. He was given $10,000 and four staff members for the project.
"We never had any money appropriated for research. We ran out and had to pinch here and there for a few bucks," he said.
A member of the Rental Accommodations Commission who asked not to be identified, criticized the RAO and the commission for waiting until early November to hold hearings on the new increases when the report was due in mid-November. "The hearings should have been held in June or July," he said.
If the City Council approves an increase in the rent ceilings after receiving the report, the increases cannot go into effect until 12 months after the last increases, which will be May 1.
The council last March approved a rent increase that ranged from 2 to 10 percent, depending on how utilities were paid; the increases went into effect in most buildings on May 1. The rent increase was part of a legislative package that changed some provisions and added others to the city rent control law. Among the new provisions was the requirement that the RAO and its commission present to the council a report on rental housing and recommended increases, if any, every Nov. 15.
The RAO transition paper that was written by agency officials for the new city administration, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, said, "The RAO budget has been seriously impacted by the burden of administering a new, more comprehensive law... with funds which had been allocated for the previous, less complex law."
In the report, RAO officials cite problems of inadequate funding, saying that "realistic but conservative estimates indicate projected expenditures of more than $950,000" for the 1979 fiscal year. Only $786,000 is budgeted, the report continued, adding that the RAO has "grown tremendously as a result of added responsibilities." The present rent control legislation went into effect last March.
The agency still needs more than the $950,000 the report cites, however, because it has been mandated to start a rent supplement program for one-fifth of rental households in the city, according to the transition paper. Other programs that are slated to begin when funding becomes available are hearings on landlords' petitions to evict tenants so that they can substantially rehabilitate their properties, hearings covering landlords' capital improvements costs, an expansion of the tenant hotline and installation of a computerized data system.
The RAO also does not have a large enough staff to ensure compliance with the law, according to the report, which says, "It is currently estimated that up to one-third of the rents being charged to new tenants in the District of Columbia are in excess of the allowable rent ceilings."
The paper also says that thousands of rental units are not registered with the agency, although landlords are required by law to do so.
Critics have charged that most RAO hearing examiners, who preside over complaints from landlords and tenants, do not have enough legal training or experience in hearing cases and are under pressure to issue decisions quickly because of a backlog of cases.
Rent administrator Ford acknowledges that "there was a period when we were cranking out cases like crazy. It was humanly impossible to review all the decisions." Now, however, all decisions are reviewed and "we earnestly attempt to catch all (the mistakes)."
Ford added that his office has "been improving the quality" of hearing examiners who are hired.