Simone Sutcliffe, 28, had an inside tip.
A few months ago, the jewelry designer, waitress and mom of a 2-year-old son snagged a one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment in Takoma Park, Md.
“Someone told me this apartment was opening up, and I just jumped on it,” she says.
She got the place, along with a little fiscal security in the area’s pricey rental market.
In parts of the Washington area, rent-control laws cap how much and how often a landlord can raise the rent. They date back to the 1970s and ’80s, and you’ll only find them in D.C. and Takoma Park; nowhere else in Maryland or Virginia has them.
Under D.C.’s current law, landlords can’t raise rents more than a certain amount each year. The set percentage is typically the increase in the Consumer Price Index plus 2 percent. They also cannot raise rents more than once a year, unless an apartment is vacated.
All units in D.C. fall under rent-control laws, though there are a lot of exceptions. Rental units built after 1975 are exempt, as are landlords who rent four or fewer units. Landlords also can petition for bigger increases for such circumstances as financial hardship or major building improvements.
Sutcliffe says having a rent-controlled apartment gives her peace of mind, and her building is certainly popular. After she moved in, she says, “anytime I went outside, someone would ask me if there were any openings.”
Lynn Asaro, 28, who lives in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment on Connecticut Avenue in Van Ness, says rent control wasn’t a deciding factor in her apartment search, but she’s really glad to have it. “I definitely don’t want the price to go up,” she says. “It’s already expensive enough.”
In the U.S., only four states — California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York — and the District have rent-control laws in place, while 35 states prohibit such laws.
Renters may love it, but tenant-advocates and building owners are sharply divided on whether a rent-control program is beneficial for a city.
For Matthew Losak, executive director of Renters Alliance, a nonprofit that protects renters’ rights in Montgomery County, rent control is crucial, particularly for seniors, lower-income families and residents who don’t see salary increases commensurate with rising rents.
“Right now in Montgomery County, landlords can raise rents as high as they want each year,” Losak says. They just have to give tenants 60 days’ notice. “Renters live in uncertainty from year to year,” Losak says.
Rent-control opponents, meanwhile, say it isn’t the housing or social policy the city needs.
“It’s a terribly inefficient means of providing economic assistance to renters in need,” says Shaun Pharr of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.
Without income eligibility requirements, there’s no guarantee that needier people will get those rent-controlled units, Pharr says.
Opponents of rent control say an assistance program that gives vouchers to lower-income residents would do a better job of helping those who need it.
Though it lacks rent control, Montgomery County has a Voluntary Rent Guideline for landlords. The guideline changes annually based on inflation. In 2012, it was a 2.8 percent increase, and in 2013, it’s 4 percent.
Despite the guideline, Losak says he’s seen rent increases ranging from 7 to 40 percent.
When his own rent jumped 12 percent, Losak contacted the county’s Housing and Community Affairs Department. They worked with his landlord to get the increase down to about 7 percent.
But Losak and the alliance want to give renter protections more teeth.
In D.C., tenants who think their landlord has violated rent-control laws can file tenant petitions with the D.C. rent administrator. Organizations such as the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate, the Neighborhood Legal Services Program and the Legal Aid Society can help renters with their complaints.
“It happens a heck of lot,” Joel Cohn, legislative director for the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate, says of the tenant disputes.
So where is rent control heading in D.C.? With new buildings under construction and some older buildings getting torn down or becoming exempt from the law for various reasons, these units could become a scarce resource, Cohn says.
“Tenants who are moderate income are going to find it that much tougher to be able to afford to live in the District,” he says.
More than 60 percent of rental units in D.C. are rent-controlled, but how do you know if a prospective apartment is one of them? There’s no single website for finding rent-controlled units, but here are tips:
-If your prospective building was built before 1975 and has more than four units, chances are it’s rent-controlled, says Joel Cohn of the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate. Landlords are legally obligated to tell you whether the building is rent-controlled, so just ask.
-To ask about a particular unit, call the D.C. rent administrator’s office. They have a database of rent-controlled units, but it’s not publicly searchable.
-If you’re looking for affordable housing, rent-controlled or not, use the D.C. Housing and Community Development Department’s affordable housing locator. The non-profit Socialserve has online housing locators for other regions.