A year ago today, tenant activists and D.C. City Council members had just ended a bitter debate over provisions of the city's new rent control law, and one of the few areas of agreement was a proposed rental assistance program for low-income residents.
Today, $15 million has been appropriated, rules have been written and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development expects to begin operating the program this month. While some insist that the money available will be far less than the need, others see the program as an important sign that the city is beginning to address the housing burden facing poor people who have fallen through the cracks.
The housing department plans to advertise for applicants and is expecting thousands to respond since the city has an estimated 36,900 low-income District tenants who cannot afford to pay their rents or are living in unsafe housing conditions.
Under the proposed rules, the housing department has determined that the fair market rent for apartments ranges from $486 a month for an efficiency to $1,014 a month for a unit with four or more bedrooms.
To determine the amount of financial assistance a tenant should receive, the housing department has developed a monthly payment assistance standard, from $350 for an efficiency to $969 for a six-bedroom unit. The actual assistance payment would equal the payment standard less 30 percent of the family's annual adjusted income.
For example, if a family lives in a two-bedroom apartment, the assistance payment would be equal to $530 minus 30 percent of the family's income. The income limits upon which eligibility will be based range from $16,500 a year for an individual to $29,500 a year for a family of eight or more.
Although the city will use a random selection process to develop a waiting list, eligible applicants will receive priority if they are elderly, handicapped, female heads of households or among the 11,056 persons on the housing department's public housing waiting list.
Meanwhile, tenant activists and landlords are carefully reviewing the proposed rules, especially those pertaining to the type of housing units that will be accepted in the program.
The proposed rules place a heavy emphasis on housing standards. To avoid overcrowding, the assistance applicants must live in units that comply with space requirements that generally do not permit more than two persons to occupy a bedroom. In addition, the units must follow the District's housing regulations and will be inspected by the housing department.
At a briefing before the City Council's housing committee, housing director Madeline Petty said that while she is sure there will be thousands of applicants, she is "less certain that we and the selected tenants will be able to find decent, code standard housing units quickly and easily."
Donald Slatton, executive vice president for the Apartment and Office Building Association, whose members represent 80,000 housing units, said there would not be a shortage of housing. However, Slatton said his group is concerned for a number of reasons that the proposed rules may discourage some landlords from participating.
Slatton noted that in setting the fair market rents for units to be used in the program, the housing department has also proposed that those rents not be increased any more than twice in a four-year period.
"Why should you want to rent in this program with all the paper work if you can get a comperable rent without all the administrative headaches?" he asked, adding that his organization plans to give the housing department a list of suggested changes.
On the other hand, Jim Henderson, chairman of the tenant organization called Committee to Save Rental Housing, said he is certain that landlords who own renovated buildings in which rents have been unaffordable for many tenants will gladly participate in the program.Henderson said his main concern is that only a small group of people will benefit from the tenant assistance program because the city rules appear to favor renovated units in which the rents would be much higher. Under such a program, Henderson said, the city would be forced to make larger assistance payments to each eligible tenant and thus reduce the amount of funds available.
Amid all the bad news about city contracts, there was an encouraging report by the General Accounting Office on the city's Department of Administrative Services, which in the past, according to previous findings by the federal agency, bought goods and services uncompetitively and made little effort to determine whether prices were reasonable.
But this month, the federal auditors found the department already has adopted, or is in the process of adopting, all past GAO recommendations to improve competition. The department has rewritten the city's Material Management Manual to require agencies to justify in writing their reasons for not undertaking formal bids. The new manual, which is in the process of being adopted, also requires agencies to justify "emergencies" that allow formal bids to be bypassed.
The auditors concluded: "The District's actions taken and planned, if properly implemented, will satisfy our recommendations." It may not sound like lavish praise but, compared to the language of past audits, it can be considered the GAO equivalent of applause.