What Could Stronger Rent Control Mean for DC Residents?

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Banners against renters eviction reading "no job, no rent" are displayed on a controlled rent building in Washington, DC, on August 9, 2020. (Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP) (Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout continues to drain families’ resources. In Washington, DC, an estimated 21 percent of respondents to the September Census Household Pulse Survey expected to lose income in the next four weeks. This income loss means families are struggling to afford basic needs, such as food and housing. The ongoing affordable housing crisis (PDF) adds another layer of strain. Survey data show 71 percent of DC renter households with incomes below $50,000 were housing burdened between 2013 and 2018.

Responding to the dire housing situation, several organizations and campaigns are pushing DC government for response. The DC Tenants Union, formed in 2019, unites tenants struggling with slumlords, unaffordable rents, and poor housing conditions. The Reclaim Rent Control Campaign arose as DC’s rent control legislation was set for renewal in 2019. Though the existing legislation was reauthorized with no edits, several bills have been proposed in the current council session to strengthen DC’s rent control regulations. As the pandemic wears on, there have been increasing calls among housing activists for the cancelation of rent altogether, aligned with national proposals (PDF) for eliminating rent.

As part of our series highlighting the voices of community changemakers confronting equity issues facing the greater DC region, I spoke to Roger Williams, a tenant and organizer with the DC Tenants Union and Reclaim Rent Control Campaign. Williams has been involved with the Tenants Union since its inception and has been a leading voice in the Reclaim Rent Control Campaign. We discussed the campaign, calls for canceling rent, and what stronger rent control legislation could mean for DC renters.

What is the Reclaim Rent Control Campaign, and how did you get involved?

Roger Williams: I started organizing around sustainable affordable housing back in 2017. I got involved with the Latino Economic Development Center. Then in 2019, I helped launch the DC Tenants Union. We engaged city officials and the council to renew rent control and make major, long overdue revisions. These revisions fall into three categories: expanding rent control to cover more tenants, closing existing loopholes, and ensuring rents remain affordable.

Rent control is DC’s largest affordable housing program. Loopholes have weakened protections and limited the availability of rent-controlled units. For instance, when a unit becomes vacant, the landlord can increase the amount beyond what the previous renter was paying. Vacancy increases can be up to 10 percent where the vacated lessee was in the unit for fewer than 10 years and 20 percent for everyone else. Our platform would only allow increases of no more than rate of inflation. This would end the incentives for high turnover and help curb rapid increases in rents.

How would these changes affect renters?

Roger Williams: It would slow down gentrification and displacement. You can see a mindset among some landlords here to push people out. You have Amazon opening up in Crystal City, which will increase the number of renters. By 2030, the city will have a significantly higher population. There is an incentive to push out folks who are currently in rent-controlled units and replace them with people who can pay higher rents.

The country isn’t building more public housing. At the local level, there is no consensus to pour money into affordable housing. When they turn property or land over to developers, there is a relatively low amount of required affordability. Adding new units to rent control would create more affordability. So we are talking about how to slow displacement.

How have economic hardships brought on by COVID-19 affected the campaign to strengthen rent control?

Roger Williams: Folks who have either been out of work or have reduced hours are not in a position to pay rent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the national eviction moratorium because of COVID-19. In the long term, if something isn’t done, we’ll see more people on the streets. Rent control is important. But rent people can’t pay now takes precedence. After the state of emergency, more people can’t pay their rent. We had two protests of developers in September. We had a good number of people show up; large number of folks who are out of work. We also had folks who are undocumented showing up. Those folks don’t get access to the same COVID-19 response resources.

What gaps in data do we need to fill to better understand rent control?

Roger Williams: There is a big gap in data on remaining rent control units. The city doesn’t have those numbers and hasn’t focused on getting accurate information. I don’t think they consider it a priority. Tenants don’t get the same level of consideration as those who can afford to buy.

The data would give us a baseline, and we could focus on organizing the renters in buildings still under rent control. We could encourage them to form tenant associations and involve them in the Tenants Union. That is how the lack of info on rent control units affects organizing. We can’t necessarily focus on where we need to be.

What are some next steps for the Reclaim Rent Control Campaign?

Roger Williams: There is a lack of awareness among renters about the tools and wherewithal they have to force government change. Folks don’t seize that opportunity. If you have folks who are not acting in your best interest, you need to change the folks who are harming you. We are trying to build a mindset of seeking information, and dealing with that information in a useful manner.

In September, the chair of the Council’s housing committee, Anita Bonds, introduced legislation to reform substantial rehabilitation and capital improvement petitions (which allow landlords to temporarily raise rents), and place a two-year moratorium on voluntary agreements (the campaign is demanding the elimination of voluntary agreements). The legislation included other reforms that the coalition does not support such as means testing and allowing owners to save rent increases and apply them to future tenants. Over 100 tenants and advocates turned out to testify at that hearing in support of comprehensive rent control reform. In response to that hearing, Councilmember Bonds called a hearing for November 9 on our Omnibus legislation (Rent Stabilization Program Reform and Expansion Amendment Act of 2020). This legislation includes the entire Reclaim Rent Control platform. We are gearing up to show up in force at that hearing and taking direct action in the lead up.