Bill Regan, a property manager for a local real estate firm, pointed to a shattered glass door in a shabby hallway at an apartment building on 2d Street NE.
Chips of green paint had flaked off the hallway's wall, exposing while patches of plaster. A banister had been torn from a stairwell and had not been replaced. Repairs should have been carried out, Regan said, "but we can't afford to. We're only doing, in this building, what is absolutely necessary."
Regan and many others in the real estate business say that the District of Columbia's rent control system has forced landlords to spend less money than they should for unkeep allowing their apartment buildings to become increasingly run-down.
Studies by the D.C. Rental Accommodations Commission, a board that oversees the rent control system, and by the Development Economics Group, a consulting firm, have both turned up some evidence of apparent cuts in spending for maintenance and other services in apartment buildings.
Such cutbacks, both studies indicate, appear to have occurred more frequently in large, elevator buildings than in smaller walkups.
Some tenant advocates contend that inflation, rather than rent control, has led to these spending cuts. Even without rent control, they argue, landlords would have sought to economize on maintenance because of rising utilities and other costs.
In addition, tenant spokesman note, the city's rent control law sometimes brings about improvements in maintenance, because buildings must be found to be in substantial compliance with the D.C. housing code before rent increases may be authorized.
D.C. housing inspectors say they have observed no overall increase or decrease in housing code violations as a result of rent control. The cutbacks that real estate groups attribute to rent control are said primarily to affect relatively non-essential maintenance, such as delays in routine painting and plastering or in installing new carpeting and household appliances.
Regan, who works for Frank Emmet Real Estate, Inc., a property management firm, cited repeated examples of what he described as inadequate upkeep during a tour of six low-rent buildings managed by the firm in various parts of the city. The company's chief business is managing apartment buildings owned by other investers.
Regan pointed to window frames that needed painting and caulking, halls where paint looked dirty and was flaking off, apartment doors with missing slats, water-damaged plaster in need of repair, small tiles that were missing from a stairway floor, and rusting balcony railings.
"You meet a lot of resistance from owners about having (repair) work done - because of no money," Regan remarked. "Everthing goes up in price except the rent."
At the same time, Regan noted, considerable repair and maintenance work - both routine and emergency - is still done.In one building on Columbia Road NW, a new vales was being installed in a furnace, he said. Leaking pipes had resulted in costly repairs in an apartment house on 15th Street NW.Exterior trim had just been painted at a Rhode Island NE building. A new fence had been put up outside the building on 2d Street NE. A stone archway had been built to block off a courtyard at an apartment complex on 58th Street SE. This was security measure, Regan said.
Frank Emmet Jr., who heads the property management firm and is a critic of the city's rent control system, said in an interview that the buildings whose maintenance had been deferred were either operating at a loss or with only marginal income because of rent control.
None of the buildings' owners. Emmet acknowledged, had sought authorization, under the "hardship" provisions of the city's rent control law, to charge higher rents to bring in additional income.
The owners had not applied for "hardship" increases, Emmet said, because the procedure is slow, cumbersome and time-consuming. It also requires the owners.Emmet noted, to spread financial information about their buildings "across the public record." And he added, it often leads to legal challenges by tenants, which, in turn, frequently require costly additional repairs of money-losing buildings. "Its a vicious circle," Emmet said.