THE D.C. COUNCIL passes a law restricting condominium conversion. The result? More requests to convert buildings are submitted to the city government and granted, in the month of July, than in all of 1979. Where there was a spark there now is a flame, an unprecedented rush to convert buildings. Suddenly people who were only considering conversion as an alternative -- particularly tenants' associations -- are being forced to take steps to convert to condominiums immediately or lose that option. Tenants and developers are now closer to taking more housing out of the city's depleted rental market than they were before the council took any action.In the short run, at least, the council has increased the number of conversions with a law meant to do just the opposite.
The council would have been better off if it had done nothing about condominium conversions while giving builders and developers some incentives to construct new apartment buildings. Such action might have helped to take some pressure off residents who fear that if they don't buy a condominium now, they will soon be forced out of the city for want of available apartments. Those people, who are buying condominiums in order to be able to stay in the apartments they now live in, are the majority of condo buyers in the city. The new law, which took effect Sunday, only puts them in a worse position than they were in before. Most of the people asking for permits to convert their buildings before the law took effect were tenants' groups, not developers.
The council claims its intent was to protect poor and middle-class people who will be squeezed out of the city of conversions continue. In fact, conversion is one effective way in which low- and middle-income people (especially single people, as distinct from married couples, who may have two incomes) are able to buy housing of any kind, because condominiums are cheaper than houses in the District. Condominiums are also a good way to ensure that some economic and social mix will be maintained in the more popular residential areas. This was confirmed in a nationwide study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released in June: "Recent inflation also tends to shift the home-buying demand of an increasing number of middle-income households from traditional, single-family houses that may be priced too high to less expensive condominiums and cooperatives."
With the condominium conversion law, as with rent control, the city council is trying to stop the economic forces that are changing this city.These attempts are in vain. And in the case of condominium conversion, these actions actually add fuel to the fire the council is trying to put out. Instead of trying to stop the rise in real estate values or the influx of the wealthier people who can afford them, the council would do better to work with the economic forces affecting the city. For example, the council might be encouraging the construction of condominiums in less popular parts of the city where land costs are lower and the cost of a condominium apartment would be lower.