by Carren Kaston
The Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee of the DC Council is holding a series of roundtables and hearings on various aspects of rent control through the rest of September and October. However, it seems to be taking up the subject of rent control and rent control reform piecemeal, rather than from a comprehensive perspective.
A comprehensive approach to rent control legislation is provided by the omnibus rent control reform bill reintroduced in July by Council members Brianne Nadeau and Trayon White after other members of the Council rushed the renewal of the old and inadequate 2010 rent control bill through for another ten years, to 2030, despite massive protests and petitions from the renters’ community. However, that comprehensive bill, strongly favored by renters and housing advocates, has yet to be scheduled for a hearing, while many mini and temporary rent control bills have been scheduled to be heard.
The Certificates of Assurance in Rent Control was the subject of a September 14 roundtable convened by the Council’s Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee, chaired by Council member Anita Bonds. This up-to-now virtually unknown legislation has suddenly burst into the spotlight as the major stumbling block to meaningful rent control reform in DC. The Certificates of Assurance is Section 221 of the Rental Housing Act of 1985. It obligates the city to compensate landlords of rent-controlled buildings for money they might lose if changes in rent control lead to their making less profit on their properties than they currently make or could expect to make in the future. So, they would be compensated in perpetuity.
At the September 14 roundtable, many witnesses testified that Certificates of Assurance must be repealed, so that equitable and urgently needed rent control reforms, such as those included in the omnibus bill, can be passed. We learned that since rent control was established in 1975, approximately 38 percent of DC’s rent-controlled units have been lost through conversion to condos, coops, and in other ways. At the same time, huge numbers of non-rent-controlled residential buildings have gone up, which renters of low-, modest-, and middle income cannot afford. DC residents urgently need rent control to be strengthened and expanded, including the extension of rent control to currently non-rent-controlled buildings. (The omnibus bill proposes the expansion of rent control, on a continuous rolling basis, to buildings constructed 15 years earlier and before, which would certainly make a great many more rent-controlled, affordable units available to DC residents.) The strengthening of rent control protections is all the more urgent during the pandemic when even tenants who managed to pay the rent before are now struggling to do so.
Witnesses at the Certificates of Assurance roundtable included renters, experts in the housing field, and two or three representatives of the landlord community. Legal experts, including from the Office of the Tenant Advocate and DC’s Legal Aid Society, pointed out that the Certificates of Assurance law is actually illegal. That’s because it violates a doctrine of contract law called “Privity of Estate,” which says that only those who are parties to a contract can be involved in the contract. However, the Certificates of Assurance in Rent Control law provides that the certificates will be signed by the Mayor, who is not a party to the contract. For that reason, the law is illegal.
In the wake of roundtable testimony, Council member Bonds has called for emergency legislation on September 22 to enact a temporary moratorium on Certificates of Assurance in Rent Control. While this moratorium is a welcome partial step, it is temporary and piecemeal. One can only hope it will lead to full repeal of the Certificates of Assurance law.
Meanwhile, five piecemeal rent control bills will receive hearings this Thursday, September 24:
- B23-237, the “Rent Concession Amendment Act of 2019”
- B23-530, the “Rent Stabilization Affordability Qualification Amendment Act of 2020”
- B23-877, the “Substantial Rehabilitation Petition Reform Amendment Act of 2020”
- B23-879, the “Capital Improvement Petition Reform Amendment Act of 2020”
- B23-878, the “Voluntary Agreement Moratorium Agreement Act of 2020”
But there is no hearing yet scheduled for the omnibus rent control reform bill that we urgently need. If you agree a hearing on the comprehensive omnibus bill must be scheduled, please testify at the hearings for the mini bills on September 24, beginning at noon, and take the occasion to insist in your remarks that a piecemeal approach to rent control is not adequate and we need for the comprehensive omnibus bill to receive a fair hearing. That’s what I plan to do.
Requests to testify must be made by emailing [email protected] or telephoning the Housing Committee at 202-724-8198 no later than close of business two days before the hearings (that’s by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, September 22). If you miss the deadline to ask to testify, it would still be beneficial for you to email Anita Bonds and others on the Council’s Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee as soon as possible if you want to weigh in on rent control reform issues. Here are the members of the Housing
Please take action to help make the omnibus rent control bill a reality for our city!
Carren Kaston is a consulting writer and editor who is president of the Sedgwick Gardens Tenants Association. She is also founder and head of the Sedgwick Gardens Historic Preservation Committee. She has lived in Cleveland Park since the 1980s and has come to care deeply about the concerns of District renters.