On Aug. 13, 1979, the Community of Hope received a "Dear Customer" letter from Hessick Inc., notifying us of a near 100 percent increase in fuel oil costs for the coming heating season. The Community of Hope operates a 27-unit building at 1417 Belmont St. NW, with 20 units used as an emergency shelter for low-income families. Not only is the price of heating oil now at 90 cents a gallon and expected to rise, we were further informed that credit will no longer be extended because of new policies placed on suppliers by the larger companies.
For most low-income renters in apartment buildings, heating costs are contained in rents charged by the owner. For this reason, the fuel-stamp proposal would not apply to the majority of the poor who do not pay their fuel costs directly. Most older buildings like ours have steam boilers making individual metering nearly impossible. This means that eventually these increases will be passed on to the renters.
The past problems low-income tenants have always had in finding affordable housing are likely to appear slight compared with the prospects for the future. There are no government programs even under consideration to meet the immediate crisis that is upon us as surely as winter follows summer. Washington's Department of Housing and Community Development is now forbidden by HUD from using any of its federal funds to provide emergency assistance to tenants where owners fail to provide utilities.
Even if owners keep the heat on during the winter, the cost will eventually be passed on, as allowed by the Rental Accommodation Commission. Sometimes during the next year, thousands of tenants in the city will be receiving rent increases exceeding 25 percent.
For the many poor families of the inner city already paying more than half their income for rent and utilities, this represents an overwhelming, if not disastrous, increase in basic living costs. The records of several low-income apartment buildings in the 14th Street neighborhood dependent upon fuel oil for heat show that the average fuel cost has been about 30 percent of the operating costs. When fuel prices double, the operating costs are increased accordingly, and in these buildings rent increases of 30 percent are inevitable.
A representative of the Wm. J. Davis company, which manages several large buildings in our neighborhood, said that in all these buildings increases of this magnitude will be coming after the first of the year. This means that a family in one of these older buildings paying the going rate of about $200 for a one-bedroom apartment can expect to pay $260 in the near future.
What can be done? Presently there seem to be no plans to provide assistance to low-income families whose heating costs are passed on in rent increases. While some savings could be accomplished with weatherization, a quick tour of the older rental stock of the city indicates that in only a few buildings are there any effective preparations being made for the coming heating season. Weatherization of these buildings requires major investment. It's unlikely that the government will provide financial assistance for this purpose to owners who can meet their increased cost by simply raising rents.
What is needed is an immediate meeting of tenants, owners, rental agents and government representatives, perhaps initiated by DHCD, to make some short- and long-term plans for the present crisis. We can't wait for the federal government to provide assistance from windfall taxes on oil company profits. There will be no easy answers. Tenants will need to learn the value of conservation. Owners will need to be encouraged, if not required, to invest in weatherization rather than simply pass on increases. If all fuel costs can be passed on, there is little, if any, incentive for the owner to invest in those improvements that could decrease operating costs. An attorney for the Rental Accommodation Commission acknowledged than an owner would not be denied a request for a rent increase even if such increases result from inefficient heating or poor management. Government must realize that such inflationary costs represent more than an inconvenience for the poor. These increases are certain to bring personal hardship and social disorder to the city.
For the poor, a warm house means security. I've had many people tell me that they can survive if only they have enough to eat and a warm place to live. And it's amazing how well people are surviving without much more. But inflationary increases cannot be absorbed by the poor. Most of their income already goes to housing and food. Unless we respond immediately, in a few months there will be thousands of families without the critical minimums for life; the right to decent, affordable shelter will be denied even more of our citizens.