Dorothy J. Kennison has been head of the D.C. Rental Accommodations Office (RAO) for a little more than a month. In the time, she has been frustrated by a lack of funds for new programs and expansion of current facilities. Still, says Kennison, she plans to do "the best I can with what I have" as rent administrator of one of the city government's most-criticized agencies.
RAO, which administers the city's rent control program, handles about 100 cases a month, primarily landlord petitions for rent increases and tenant appeals for rent roll-backs and rebates.
One of the first problems Kennison faced was a fund shortage. She had requested $130,000 to supplement RAO's fiscal year 1979 budget, but like other city requests, it was rejected by the Senate. Kennison said she had planned to use the funds to hire more hearing examiners, expand the tenant hotline service and collect data on the city's rental housing stock.
"I also wanted to update our educational materials and publish a guide to rental housing and a codification of decisions," Kennison said in a recent interview.
Although Kennison says she has no plans to reorganize RAO, she would like to "strengthen the adjudication section - I want to provide more staff and legal support.I'm also looking at the duties of the hearing examiners to see if we maybe could use paralegals for some of the work rather than lawyers."
She said she also would like to provide "more education in terms of rights and the law for both tenants and landlords," through RAO's client services division. "we need a person on the tenant hotline fulltime. We have a part-time. We have a part-time CETA person now."
Kennison is working toward a major goal. "The City Council has passed laws based on emotions," she said, "all we hope to provide more scientific, statistical data on gaps in the laws and problems we're having in implementation."
She said one of the major loopholes in the law is "the conflict in notice requirements" that tenants must be given as specified in the Condominium Act and the Rental Housing Act.
"For example," she said, "in the (Rental Housing) Act, the notice of intent to sell must be given for 30 days and the tenants have 90 days to organize (to try to obtain financing to buy the property). The Condominium Act doesn't spell out if those times run concurrently. It depends on the interpretation."
One area Kennison hopes to focus on is communication and cooperation between RAO and other city department.
"I want to have more coordination with other city agencies," she said. "There are a lot of landlords who are unregistered (as required by the Rental Housing Act). They get business licenses and go to (the Department of) Finance and Review. We should look at every (city) office that a landlord would have contact with."
Kennison said two of her concerns are that landlords may be circumventing the rent control law by first converting apartment buildings to apartment hotels and then into condominiums, and that small landlords can not legally increase rents because of housing code violations in their buildings.
She plans to meet with the Rental Accommodations Commission, the nine-member appeals branch of RAO, once a month.
"They're an intergral part of this office. We go hand-in-hand," she said. "I've encouraged the legal training of the commissioners and orientation for the new members."
Kennison said the commission "needs more money for staff support and stipends" so they can meet more often and hear more appeals.Commission members are paid $50 per meeting and are limited to a maximum of $5,400 a year. Kennison said she met recently with the commission chairman, Jerome Shuman, and he told her that some members wanted their stipend increased to $100 a meeting, the same as received by Zoning Commission members.
"The consensus is that the stipend should be increased," Shuman said. "Some meetings last until midnight and members have to spend time preparing. The workload has doubled since the limit was set."
Despite the frustrations over a lack of funds and manpower shortage, she does not seem discouraged.
"I call myself a can-do administrator," she said. "I will do the best I can with what I have. I'll try to use the staff in the best way possible with the constraints and will look for other sources" for funding.
"I'm interested in speaking a lot to tenants and landlords. I have an open-door policy." she said. "Tenants don't know their rights as well as landlords. The law was designed to protect low- and moderate-income people."
Kennison, a native Washington, attended Howard University and has a master's degree in social work. She has worked as a probation officer and as a senior program analyst in the D.C. Office of Consumer Protection.
Landlords and tenant activists say they are unfamiliar with Kennison's background.
"We don't know her and never heard of her before her appointment," said John O'Neil, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association. "We're disturbed because the position requires some expertise on housing. She has a rather critical role in dealing with rental housing in the city. The office needs a strong administrator."
"It's too early to tell what she's going to do," said Mark Looney, a member of the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing. "She seems to be in favor of rent control and she's a strong consumer advocate." CAPTION: Picture, Dorothy J. Kennison: "Tenants don't know their rights as well as landlords." By Tom Allen - The Washington Post