After two hours in Hearing Room A of the Rental Accommodations Office, an observer waiting for his case to get started was shaking his leg so forcefully that his cramped bench was rocking; a plaintive child had gone to sleep, and the dispute at hand was going nowhere.
Linda Martin, cradling her child, walked to the end of a table to show hearing examiner Barney Hamlin two $6 court summonses she refused to pay. When Eldridge Queen, her landlord's representative from Cafritz Co., agreed to let that payment slide if that were the crux of the problem, Martin resolutely demanded that every rent increase document be examined.
For the next 20 minutes, a battery of Cafritz's lawyers produced their "document trail" for Hamlin and Franklin Moody, a contact representative of RAO who was there to ease the process for Martin.
Finally, Moody pinpointed the dispute: whether one rent increase came too soon after another, a point that had been confused by the question of whether it was governed by a now-expired law or its successor. With the issue thus established, Hamlin took the case under advisement and adjourned the hearing.
"Hey, thanks, brother," hearing examiner Hamlin told Moody later in the doorway. "She'd have been wiped out" by the preponderance of documents without Moody's help, he said. Moody, a Howard University law student, agreed and said he and his colleagues provide this kind of help almost every day.
It's part of business as usual at the RAO, the agency dedicated by law to maintaining the supply of low- and moderate-income housing, where tenants and landlords from the District's 125,000 regulated rental units can come for information, conciliation and remedies through adjudication.
RAO also sends its staff to conduct seminars and briefings for groups of tenants on the Rental Accommodations Act of 1980, the latest in a series of District rent-control laws since 1974.
But the home front at 420 7th St. NW, a cavernous building with an ambience underpinned by the D.C. Foundation for Creative Space, is the hub of activity.
Rent Administrator Dorothy J. Kennison says her office had managed to catch up with it case load, thanks to extra temporary staffing from April to June.
But now the RAO is plagued by a shortage of clerical support staff, and unfinished business is on the rise. Kennison and her deputy, Keith A. Vance, are sharing a clerk-typist detailed to be their secretary, and budget cuts have scotched a contingent of workers under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act who have yet to be replaced.
Handling the hearings, which are scheduled at two-hour intervals, four times a day, are five full-time and two part-time examiners, all law school graduates.
William P. Bodwitch, a temporary legal adviser with the office, says an examiner's standard work load is at least four hearings a week. He figures that three a week would allow for drafting the decisions and then setting them aside awhile to allow the examiner a "fresh look" at the issues.
The maximum time allowed for an examiner's decision and the office's review process is 120 days, although deadlines vary with the nature of the petition. RAO aims for judgments in 45 days.
Particularly in cases involving a landlord-hardship petition for rent increase, Kennison notes, an examiner tries to render a decision before 60 days elapse because a landlord is entitled to increase rent provisionally after that time.
Such judicial-process suspense is avoided if conciliation, RAO's first line of defense, succeeds. "Many solutions to problems occur on a lunch hour," Kennison says, and one-day resolutions are common.
It can be a matter of a phone call to RAO, where a contact representative may be able to sort the problem out. "There's not always a justifiable grievance," Kennison says, so the complaint turns into an "educational process" about the law.
In more contentious or complicated cases, a landlord may come in along with a disgruntled tenant for what Kennison calls "a meeting of minds." A mediator helps get the facts out and nudges the parties toward a solution.
According to Deputy Director Vance, the conciliation process has brought a "30 to 40 percent reduction in tenant complaints brought to this office."
Even if the fails and the dispute escalates to the hearing stage, last-ditch mediation efforts are not ruled out; the examiner will excuse himself and the conciliator will reappear.
Another method for avoiding a hearing, one that has been "used more this year than ever before," according to Vance, is the voluntary rent increase, or "70 percent," agreement.
In this procedure, if the landlord and 70 percent of the tenants can agree to a written proposal for a rent increase under certain guidelines and restrictions, they can file it with RAO and gain approval. "That's the easiest mechanism for the landlord and tenant to come to use" for increases, Vance advises, and "it brings landlords and tenants closer together."
But mutual agreement can be elusive. Nor do litigants fall neatly into the scheme of the big, powerful landlord versus the lowly tenant, RAO officials note. Sixty-four percent of the landlords have small holdings, Vance said. (To be exempt from rent control, a landlord must own or be a partner in four or fewer apartments.)
The burden of proof generally falls on the petitioner.
On a recent afternoon, two managers of a Georgetown property sat in a hearing room with examiner Camille Pierce, waiting, in vain, for the petitioner to show up. The two, a man and woman who asked not to be identified, were chatting with Pierce, comfortable in a setting they have seen many times.
Asked to characterize tenants who file petitions, the man said, "They're usually kind of impertinent individuals who are trying to assert themselves."
"Law students," his companion interjected. But she said, "I think every tenant I have knows about RAO . If they don't know, I tell them."
Both asserted that good tenants tend to be more important to the landlord than rent increases. Sometimes a landlord will file a hardship petition, which asks that the rent ceiling be raised to create a 10 percent return on equity, just in case the tenant leaves. If such an increase is not on file, the landlord is allowed a 10 percent increase for a vacancy for a year and is prevented for 180 days from any different means of increase.
The woman said her employer had won approval for a 100 percent increase in rent but had not passed it on, "and of course he hasn't lost a tenant, either."
All three agreed that tenants and landlords tend to come together on equal terms in hearings. "Some landlords don't know too much more than the tenants," Pierce said, and even legal counsel may not help if the attorney is not a specialist in rent laws. Furthermore, an organizing movement among tenants is growing, so renters are getting more alert to their rights.
Indeed, Kennison says, "I think landlords are probably more critical of RAO than tenants."
Not in the case of the two property managers, though. Pierce found the allegation--that proper documents for rent increases had not been filed--was not borne out in her files, and the managers left with only their time wasted.