District politicians and wannabes constantly decry the lack of affordable housing in the city. Mayor Vincent C. Gray has proposed spending almost $200 million to build and preserve such units.
“Preservation is the big thing,” said D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), who heads the council’s Committee on Economic Development and is the Democratic Party’s mayoral nominee.
There is scant evidence that anyone is listening to that message. While more than 50 percent of the city’s population are tenants, politicos have focused most of their attention on homeowners. There has been no significant proposal to preserve affordable apartments, such as providing tax abatements per unit to landlords who retain low-cost housing. Could that be because the city doesn’t have even an accurate list of units whose affordability is protected under the city’s rent-control law, according to the Office of the Tenant Advocate?
Established to assist renters, the OTA is underfunded and has only four staff lawyers; they litigate a case only if they think they can win and it will have impact across the city. The agency also has a “rapid response team” that notifies tenants of “possible adverse issues” affecting their buildings, such as a foreclosure proceeding, but that doesn’t mean it will do anything to block such dangers.
Equally disturbing, the failure of some government workers to follow D.C. laws may be aggravating the decline of the affordable housing stock.
“There is no rent control in the rent-control law and no affordable housing in the affordable housing program,” said D.C. lawyer Johnny Barnes. Too many loopholes can be exploited by landlords and developers.
Consider the case of Carolyn Long and her neighbors on 28th Street SE. In 2009, their landlord, C.C. Dudley (a.k.a. Twenpen LLC), filed a request with the District to increase the rent at his 50-unit building by 62 percent. Under the rent-control rules, a landlord can seek such a steep increase by claiming hardship if he isn’t drawing the 12 percent profit allowable. The city’s rent administrator at the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is required to rule on requests within 90 days; if he doesn’t, landlords can begin collecting requested increases until a determination is made.
Six months later, in 2010, the city approved a 37.12 percent increase for Dudley. Tenants, as was their right, appealed. They hired a lawyer and started a rent strike that delayed their payment of the increase but worsened the overall situation.
The appeal went to the Office of Administrative Hearings. Absent an agreement between the tenants and the landlord, a hearing should have been scheduled in 2011. Instead, the case was sent back to the rent administrator.
And there it sat.
Why, I asked DHCD Director Michael P. Kelly, wasn’t a hearing scheduled? “How we address and process claims filed with the Rental Accommodations Division (RAD) is an area that we are looking at closely to identify gaps and/or opportunities to improve and enhance the administration.”
Translation: I don’t know.
Last year, Dudley started hauling tenants into the landlord and tenant division of D.C. Superior Court. Long, a former D.C. Council employee, cried out for help. Eric Goulet in the mayor’s office and council members David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Bowser came to her rescue, demanding that DHCD hold the needed appeal hearing.
Simultaneously, Long and her group hired Barnes. This year, he met the landlord’s lawyers in court, won the first jury trial and subsequently negotiated a settlement that provided Dudley only an 18 percent rent increase. “I think it’s a good deal for” the tenants, said Barnes, adding that they had “faced an uncertain future.”
The government didn’t do Dudley any favors. He said that while he waited for resolution, his property taxes increased substantially and his building went into receivership because he couldn’t pay his utility bill. “Nobody’s trying to get 12 percent,” he said. “I’m just trying to get a decent return to cover my expenses.”
I’m glad he said that. The 12 percent profit threshold for requesting a hardship waiver is overly generous. It should be lowered.
This week — four years after requesting a hearing — tenants learned that one has been scheduled for June. Those not represented by Barnes could be forced to pay back rent reflecting the initial 62 percent increase through 2010 or the 37.12 percent increase from 2010 through the present.
Many other District tenants also are fighting landlords and bureaucratic inertia. A bill in Bowser’s committee may help others dealing with hardship-based rent increases. If approved, it would limit to 5 percent the amount of an increase a landlord could collect until a decision is made. The Office of the Tenant Advocate wants to extend the amount of time the DHCD has to render a ruling from 90 days to 120 or 180, believing it will increase tenants’ opportunity to exercise their rights. In reality, that would just reinforce the belief of some D.C. employees that they don’t have to work for their paychecks. So far, Bowser hasn’t scheduled a vote on the legislation.
“The system has failed [renters] of this city,” said Long. “No one is taking the time to listen to tenants.”
That’s an indisputable truth.