But a coalition of 17 groups that include labor unions, religious congregations and community organizations fears that in a city with some of the highest rates of gentrification and displacement in the nation, extending a 34-year-old law without making substantive changes will fall short of residents’ needs.
The group unveiled its political platform Wednesday in front of an apartment building on Hamilton Street NW, where activists said tenants were subject to 30 percent rent hikes after a new building owner sought to offset the costs of repairs and renovations.
“The Reclaim Rent Control campaign calls for the end of such abusive practices that reward landlords for neglecting rental housing,” the coalition wrote in a statement.
It will be the first political test for the newly formed D.C. Tenants Union, a collective of more than 100 renters from across the District who organized around harnessing the power of tenants in a city where about 60 percent of the population rents, according to census data.
D.C. Tenants Union organizers said having the ability to reach renters in all corners of the city will better equip the group to lobby council members. As part of the coalition, the Tenants Union joins groups such as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and the nonprofit group Empower DC.
“We are in a crisis when it comes to affordable housing, truly affordable housing,” said Roger Williams, an interim chapter captain with the D.C. Tenants Union. “There needs to be legislative change.”
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who chairs the D.C. Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
D.C. law allows landlords to raise rents once annually — but for most tenants, it limits the hike to the rate of inflation plus 2 percent, and not more than 10 percent for any tenant. For renters who are elderly or disabled, restrictions are tighter.
Property owners are allowed to seek rent increases to help pay for capital improvement projects, increased services, financial hardship and “substantial rehabilitation,” according to D.C. law.
Organizers said the campaign rollout was meant to coincide with lawmakers’ attention on the issue as they weigh legislation to renew rent-control regulations.
“Housing activists have been trying to make changes to the rent-control laws for years,” said Victoria Goncalves, an organizer with the Latino Economic Development Center, a member of the coalition. “The fact that rent control needs to be reauthorized is the perfect opportunity for us to say the status quo is not enough. The status quo was written in the ’70s, and we need to reissue it so that it reflects what the issues in D.C. are today.”
The coalition’s multi-prong platform seeks to expand the District’s rent-control laws in several ways:
●Cap annual rent increases at the rate of inflation by eliminating the extra 2 percent allowed under the current law.
●Make small, four-unit apartment buildings and all buildings built before 2005 subject to rent control.
●Make new units subject to rent control after 15 years.
● Cut the minimum number of properties landlords must own before they are subject to rent-control provisions and eliminate what are known as “vacancy increases,” which allow landlords to increase the rent of a unit when it is vacated by the previous tenant.
Activists said expanding the coalition to include groups such as labor unions and political organizations has broadened its reach and gives greater credibility to its aims.
Labor organizers said they frequently hear from members who are anxious about the price of housing in the District and worry about making the rent or losing their homes.
“Our members live in D.C., and even with the strong wages and benefits we’ve been able to secure for them, staying in the city is still really, really difficult and really, really expensive,” said Benjy Cannon, a spokesman for the Unite Here Local 25, which represents more than 7,500 hospitality workers and is part of the coalition. “It’s so important to have a diverse cross-section of groups pushing for this because issues of inequality, racism, housing, poverty, employment — they’re all interconnected.”
About 40 percent of the District’s lower-income neighborhoods experienced gentrification between 2000 and 2013, according to a National Community Reinvestment Coalition study released earlier this year, giving it the greatest “intensity of gentrification” of any city in the country.
The District also saw the highest number of African American residents — more than 20,000 — displaced from their neighborhoods during that time, mostly by affluent, white newcomers, researchers found. Among low-income residents, displacement rates in the District are among the highest in the country, the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity found in research that spanned 2000 to 2016.
“When rent control was written, it was written as emergency legislation because it was thought that what was happening in the housing market then was an emergency,” Goncalves said. “More and more people are getting pushed out of D.C. every day, so it’s still an emergency.”
The coalition is planning a rally for Oct. 26 at Lamont Plaza in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that there are 13 members of the D.C. Council, not 14, as originally reported.