Residents of apartment buildings in Van Ness have been working since 2019 to raise awareness of DC government policies that have undermined rent-stabilized housing availability and security. Developments in the past six months have served to confirm and call more attention to their complaints.
In early October, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a scathing assessment of the DC Housing Authority’s handling of rent subsidies.
A February 16th Washington Post investigation found the DC Housing Authority overpaying landlords millions of dollars each year, which incentivizes building owners to favor voucher holders over renters who do not qualify for subsidies.
And, most recently, a March 20th DCist story focused on one landlord’s strategy for cashing in on DC housing subsidies: “acquire rent-stabilized buildings at rock-bottom prices; buy out remaining tenants; carve up units by adding drywall to create more bedrooms; and then market them to participants in the Housing Choice Voucher Program or other housing subsidy programs, where, because of local and federal regulations (as well as poor management on the part of D.C. agencies), property owners can command double or triple what they would otherwise collect.” Neglecting building maintenance is another part of the equation.
Rent-stabilized apartments, also known in the District as rent-controlled units, are open to residents of any income. Rent increases in buildings constructed prior to 1976 are limited under DC law, and are even more restricted for seniors and those with disabilities. The rent control law also limits how much a landlord can raise the rent on a unit when it turns over. However, those rent increase caps don’t apply when a voucher renter moves in.
What the DC Council can do
Ward 3 Council member Matt Frumin introduced legislation on March 20th to address the voucher renter loophole in rent control regulations, with seven other Council members and Council chair Phil Mendelson signing on.
“I see it in Ward 3 – and it happens in other places – the way in which rent stabilized units have been cannibalized by another form of affordable housing,” Frumin told DCist. “It happens in lots of different ways. It happens in buildings where the owner … begins to see an advantage to having voucher rents as opposed to rent stabilized rents, as a way of getting around the rent stabilization rules. [And] it happens when buildings flip.”
Other opportunities for legislative remedies include the safety and security of building residents and staff.
In Ward 3, tenants associations and other advocates have urged landlords to provide 24-hour security, particularly for apartment buildings that have seen a marked increase in police calls. While some states make security part of a landlord’s contractual responsibility, DC does not. There is, however, applicable case law. In 1970’s Kline vs. 1500 Massachusetts, a judge ruled the landlord was responsible for the safety and security of a tenant who was assaulted in her apartment building’s hallway.
Apartment managers on the front line
On March 14th, the ANC 3F Housing Committee, chaired by Commissioner Teri Huet, hosted a meeting for property managers of apartment and condo buildings in the Van Ness area. The objective of the meeting, Huet said, was to provide information on resources for property managers “who are often the front line of small, medium, large, really big problems,” such as residents with mental health and addiction issues.
DC government attendees included staffers with the mayor, Council member Frumin and DC attorney general’s offices, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the DC Departments of Behavioral Health (DBH) and Buildings (DOB). The Avalon, Ava Van Ness, Connecticut House, Saratoga and Chesapeake apartments had managers in attendance. ANC 3F condos and coops were also represented by a member of the Ponce de Leon board and the president of Community Systems, a Tenleytown company that manages 30 condos and coops in Ward 3, and three in the ANC.
The managers spoke of difficulties they’d experienced with residents, in many cases housing voucher holders, exhibiting aggressive and threatening behaviors. Some reported assaults on staff members, and the difficulty of removing offenders via eviction and other means. One said that after repeated calls to 911, crisis hotlines and a caseworker about a resident who threatened to kick in the doors of apartments and kill staff members, “no one has found cause to remove this resident to get him assistance.”