About 100 tenant activists met last week to organize a union aimed at maintaining the District's strong renter protection laws, including rent controls and condominium conversion limitations.
The organization, calling itself the D.C. Tenant Solidarity Union, also intends to push for legislation to deal with inadequate maintenance of residential properties.
The organization intends to promote the interests of private and subsidized apartments, public housing and housing co-ops in all parts of the city, a spokesman said.
"I think you'll see that a citywide group reinforces neighborhood groups' activities," said Larry Weston, one of the convention organizers and deputy executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association.
Representatives of three of the city neighborhood housing groups that have been most active over the last several years--the Southern Columbia Heights Tenants Union, the Washington Inner-City Self Help (WISH), and the Southeast Vicariate Cluster--attended last week's convention.
Both the local housing groups and the citywide union will continue pushing for passage of "repair and deduct" legislation now before the D.C. Council's committee on housing and economic development, spokesmen said. Council members David Clarke and Hilda Mason last year introduced bills that would allow tenants to make repairs and deduct the cost from their rent payments.
Under current District laws tenants have limited powers to force landlords to make repairs, and can petition the rental accommodations office for a rent rollback or reductions because of housing code violations.
The city government has a special program to correct housing code violations that are dangers to life and health. After making repairs the city places a lien on the property. Once the lien is paid off, the city can use the funds to make emergency repairs in other buildings. That program is most often used to make fuel deliveries and to repair heating systems.
Tenants also can ask Landlord-Tenant Court to hold their rents in an escrow fund if landlords refuse to correct housing code violations. The court, however, lacks authority to order repairs. City housing inspectors can cite landlords for housing code violations and refer cases to the corporation counsel for prosecution.
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, head of its housing and economic development committee, believes the solution lies in better admininstration of existing programs, rather than new legislation such as the repair and deduct bills now before her committee.
Earlier this month her committee approved a change in the existing code. To allow the city to make emergency repairs without notifying landlords first, Jarvis proposed additional appropriations of $958,000 to supplement the program's initial $750,000 funding. In addition, she has proposed establishing a special loan fund for landlords who are unable to obtain bank loans for needed repairs.
Jarvis believes that the repair and deduct legislation could force landlords out of business--leading to further displacement of renters.
"Many tenant activists look at the narrower issue of wanting to get immediate repairs done," she said in an interview. "I've got to take the long view of maintining D.C. housing. We're facing 'repair and deduct' because of the impact of rent control on landlords' ability to meet their expenses."
Tenant activists disagree sharply with Jarvis' analysis.
"Rent control assures landlords of a minimum rate of return not a maximum," said housing lawyer Rick Eisen. Landlords who want a rent increase can file a hardship petition with the city's rental accommodations office, and a provisional rent increase is automatic if there is no decision within three months.
"You've got three potential sources of funds for repairs," Eisen said. "The landlord pays, the city pays, or the tenant pays from his rent. You can't make the landlord do the repairs. The $1.7 million the city has just isn't going to handle all the housing code violations in D.C. The key concept is that repairs must be paid out of rents."