(DC has set the 2016 rent increase at 2%, and it’s 0% for seniors and those with disabilities. Read about it here.)
As a member of the Citizens Advisory Group of Iona Senior Services, I attended Mayor Bowser’s “Talking Transition DC Town Meeting” in January. This forum was held to let the new mayor know of her residents’ concerns about our growing and changing city. Housing costs, too-high rents and lack of affordable options were the number one concern of 73% of the 400 attendees representing all eight DC wards.
Surprised? Probably not, since housing receives almost daily press. However…
Rent control can help keep housing affordable.
In August 1979, when I found my current residence, I was not looking for a “rent-controlled” apartment – I did not even know what that meant. All I knew was that I wanted to be on Connecticut Avenue, with what I considered the perfect compromise between city life and a country feel, thanks to the neighborhood’s abundant trees. So I was not focused entirely on price when I found a two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,050 square foot apartment for $471 per month – with utilities included.
Not until 2009, when I attended the Office of the Tenant Advocate’s annual summit, did I discover how lucky my husband and I were. We were in a rent-controlled apartment. And today, I consider signing our lease one of the best financial decisions I have ever made.
In 2015, the market rate for our apartment, which still includes all utilities, is $2,375 per month. After 36 years of rent control, we are paying hundreds of dollars less than that. We are now seniors, and our low, rent-controlled housing costs have allowed us to “age in place” in an increasingly unaffordable city.
One annual automatic rent increase to keep pace with inflation
Our apartment is one of the approximately 79,000 rent-controlled units remaining in DC. These units are found only in apartment buildings built before 1976.
Rent-controlled units are neither federally nor District subsidized. What is “controlled” under the law is how often, and by how much, DC’s landlords can raise the rent. Landlords are allowed only one annual automatic rent increase to keep pace with inflation. The amount of this rent increase is tied directly to the Consumer Price Index for urban workers (CPI-W), the Department of Labor’s measure of the average annual cost of living increase for wage earners in urban areas.
How much can the rent go up this year?
For 2015, the CPI-W is 1.5%, a slight increase from the 2014 1.4% rate. And according to the DC Rental Housing Commission, this 1.5% rate is the baseline all rent-controlled buildings must use to calculate their annual rent increases from May 1st, 2015 through April 30th, 2016.
There are two kinds of annual automatic rent control increases tied to inflation: Regular and special.
- Regular – a 3.5% increase for most renters. The formula is 1.5% plus 2%.
- Special – a 1.5% rent increase.
How do these compare? DC’s Office of the Tenant Advocate has a list of CPI-W rates going back 30 years.
Who is eligible to receive the “special” 1.5% rent increase?
Those eligible for the lower annual increase fall into two categories: Those aged 62 and over, and the disabled. There are no income requirements for either group. And for the disabled lessee, there is no age requirement.
Renters must file a FREE application to receive the special rate (It’s available here in English and Spanish). Applicants must provide some documentation of their age or their disability. And the eligible person’s name must appear on the lease.
For those in the 62-plus crowd, the proof is a driver’s license, birth certificate or passport. For those with a physical or mental disability, the documentation can be an award letter from the Social Security Administration with a physician’s letter.
For assistance in filing the application, contact the Office of the Tenant Advocate, 2000 14th Street, Suite 300 North, NW (Reeves Center; Metro: U Street on the Green Line), 202-719-6560. OTA’s web site is ota.dc.gov.
Is my apartment rent-controlled?
Here is the annual rent increase notice you receive from your landlord. It contains the clues you need to determine if your unit is rent-controlled.
1) Mention the rent-control law? (“…in accordance with the provisions of the Rental Housing Act of 1985”)
2) Cite the CPI-W? (“…the increase in rent charged is based on the increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI-W)”)
3) And on page 2, does it reference a pamphlet – which is the only place the words “rent control” appear in the entire document? (The title of the pamphlet is “What You Should Know about Rent Control in the District of Columbia” (PDF)
If so, congratulations. You live in a rent-controlled unit.
Additional rent increases
A landlord can also seek additional rent increases larger than the CPI-W-based increase for rent-controlled units by petitioning the rent administrator. Reasons for additional rent increases may include:
1) Hardship (the landlord is clearing less than a 12 percent profit after expenses)
2) Capital improvements (a temporary surcharge to cover the costs of a large project)
3) Substantial rehabilitation (a permanent rent increase)
4) The addition of new services and facilities
5) Voluntary agreement (where at least 70 percent of the residents agree to the increase)
These rent increases, including instructions on how renters can challenge a rent increase, are described in the rent control section, pages 24-28, in the May 2013 edition of the Washington DC Tenant Survival Guide.
Washington DC Tenant Survival Guide
The guide is a primer for all DC renters. You could lease a rent-controlled apartment or not. You could live in a co-op, condominium or room(s) in a house. In any and all cases, the guide offers easy-to-follow summaries of DC renter rights issues. Topics include leases, housing code violations, repairs, security deposits, petitions and evictions.
Originally published in 1979, the 2013 guide is the eighth edition. The Guide was written under the coordination of the Harrison Institute for Housing and Community Development of the Georgetown University Law Center. Funding was provided by the United Way of the National Capitol Area, through the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development.
To order hard copies of the guide, in both English and Spanish, contact The Harrison Institute at 111 F Street, NW, Suite 102, Washington, DC 20001, (202) 662-4232. The Institute does not currently have the guide on its website.