For the second consecutive year, the D.C. City Council is grappling with the emotion-laden problem of how to force a small number of unscrupulous landlords to fix up their dilapidated buildings without imposing onerous burdens on "good landlords."
At a City Council hearing last week, tenants and landlords repeatedly clashed on proposed legislation that would allow tenants to make their own repairs and to deduct the costs from their rent. But both sides agreed it was aimed at only some of the city's landlords.
The repair-and-deduct legislation introduced by City Council chairman David A. Clarke and council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) is as disturbing to both tenants and landlords as rent control was a few years ago and presents the council with a similar dilemma.
In the mid-1970s when the council was considering permanent rent control legislation to replace a series of temporary measures, landlords argued that the bill, aimed at a few unethical owners who had imposed unreasonable rent increases, would hurt all landlords. Tenants argued that abusive rent increases were widespread.
There is a consensus that some tenants are living in unacceptable conditions because some landlords have repeatedly refused to make repairs. There is also agreement that tenants are sometimes responsible for damage and some might abuse a right to deduct repair costs.
Last week, tenants, complaining they have been forced to live with sporadic heat and hot water, falling ceilings and little maintenance because the city is not enforcing its laws, said they desperately needed the proposed legislation so they could make badly needed repairs.
"People all over the city wait for months and months to see if landlords will do something," Mable Maddox, a Northwest tenant, testified during the eight-hour hearing.
"Then the housing inspectors come and we wait some more," she said, adding it usually takes landlords 30 to 45 days to make repairs and some never do the required work. "We come to claim our right against uncaring landlords."
Landlords, complaining they already are overburdened with pro-tenant legislation, testified existing city laws adequately protect renters and force landlords to keep their buildings in good condition.
Raymond Howar, a longtime city landlord, testified "a system of adequate protections already exists. It is the proper responsibility of government--not tenants--to assure that it works."
Carolyn Jackson, who said she manages about 100 units for several small landlords, said, "It would be a gross mistake to allow tenants to make the decision on how much to spend on somebody else's property."
City government officials agreed with the landlords. "The existing regulations address most of the issues addressed in the bills," said Donald Murray, the city's new chief housing code enforcer. "The new legislation is unnecessary."
Tenants and some city council members called the city government's enforcement of laws lax and said it was partly responsible for the proposed legislation to let tenants make their own repairs.
Council member John L. Ray (D-At Large), chairman of the hearings, told city officials "the current program is not working. It's just not working." After the hearing Ray said flatly, "the enforcement has not been done. They are simply not enforcing the law."
Murray said, "The government may not have adequately addressed landlord violators in a timely fashion" in the past.
In the rent control fight, the council, pushed by the city's then-strong tenant movement, exempted landlords with fewer than four rental units and passed the legislation.
But last year, landlords won on the proposal to allow tenants to make repairs and deduct the cost from their rent. The council's housing committee, whose chairman was Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), never even voted on the bills. Jarvis opposed the legislation. This year, Clarke and Mason, after making substantial changes in response to some landlord concerns, reintroduced the bills. The bills now fall within the jurisdiction of the council's new Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, of which Ray is chairman.
Three of the five committee members have expressed support for repair-and-deduct legislation: Mason, John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), and Frank Smith (D-Ward 1). Ray and Jarvis say they oppose repair and deduct and favor instead improved enforcement of city laws.
Under Mason's bill, tenants would be required to give landlords written notice of needed repairs and wait 21 days for the repairs. If a landlord failed to act, the tenant then would be required to get at least two "reasonable estimates" of the repair costs, select the lowest bid and deduct up to $500 a month from the rent to pay for repairs. Tenants also would be allowed to pool their money for building-wide repairs but the deduction allowed each tenant would remain at $500 a month.
The Clarke bill would give landlords 21 days to make repairs after receiving notices of housing code violations from tenants and the city. This bill would limit tenant deductions to one month's rent every year and limit repairs to the interior of apartments.
The hearings illustrated some problems in the city's enforcement programs.
First, Murray called on the council to substitute for the repair and deduct legislation a bill creating a revolving loan fund to help small landlords who could not afford to pay for needed repairs.
Jarvis said the city already has such a program with $1 million in funding. John Hampton, administrator of the city's rent control office, who was seated at Murray's elbow, explained the loan program did exist but had been limited to buildings in Ward 8, the city's poorest ward, located generally south of Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
Hampton added that the program was in abeyance until his office could decide if landlords receiving aid would be exempted from rent control.
Murray also said his office and the corporation counsel have begun a new program to crack down on landlords who were repeatedly cited for housing code violations.
But questioned by council members, Murray and his staff acknowledged that since last October 130 cases involving 29 landlords have been referred to the corpration counsel for action, but few have led to resolution of the violations.
The corporation counsel had acted on only six of the landlords and in three of those cases, owners were allowed to pay fines ranging from $50 to $100. One case was not prosecuted because of an administrative error, another was dropped after the city government paid for the repairs and a third was dropped because the owner had died, according to Thomas Butler, who is directly in charge of the housing inspectors.
"Just going out and finding those violators" does not solve the problem, Ray told Murray. "We have to get serious about this program. I believe you and the corporation counsel have to get aggressive" about prosecuting housing code violators, Ray said.