D.C. Council Approves Emergency Legislation to Lower Rent Increases

D.C. Council Approves Emergency Legislation to Lower Rent Increases

by Sam P.K. Collins

A monthslong journey to counter a precedent-setting rent increase reached a significant milestone Tuesday when the D.C. Council unanimously approved legislation intended to protect tenants living in the District’s rent-controlled units.   

The finalized legislation, titled the Rent Stabilized Housing Inflation Protection Emergency Amendment Act, included a unanimously approved “amendment in the nature of a substitute” (ANS) that capped the annual rent adjustment at 6% for rent-controlled units from July 1 of this year to June 30, 2025. 

The ANS also set a two-year cumulative cap of 10% for rent that was adjusted, starting this past May and up until June 30, 2025. In the case of elderly rent-controlled tenants and those with disabilities, the ANS capped the increase for this year at 4% and the two-year cumulative increase at 8%. 

Overall, the legislation, initially introduced by D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At large) and adjusted with the help of a few council colleagues, prevented what had been anticipated to be a cumulative rental increase of 18% over two years. 

When White initially introduced his legislation on May 30, he set the rent increase to 6.9%, instead of the 8.9% rate that had gone into effect at the beginning of that month. 

The road to a finalized bill was paved with many bumps, including D.C. Council members Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) and Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau’s unsuccessful attempt to introduce an amendment capping the two-year cumulative increase at 10% for most rent-controlled tenants. 

During the council’s May 30 legislative session, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) acknowledged Pinto’s slightly less radical amendment over that of Lewis George, Parker, and Nadeau, even though Pinto submitted her amendment just minutes before the council started deliberating on At large Council member White’s bill. 

Days later, Lewis George, Parker, and Nadeau reached a compromise with D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) that was reflected in the ANS that At large Council member White submitted on Monday. 

In her comments on the dais on June 6, Lewis George expressed gratitude to housing advocates, along with her staff and colleagues for ensuring that tenants would be protected, even if for the time being. However, she remained disappointed that the events of last week’s council meeting didn’t serve any benefit to working-class Washingtonians.  

“Process is weaponized to block protections for working families,” Lewis George told The Informer earlier on Tuesday morning. 

“That’s what happened earlier this year and last week when our amendment was blocked,” she continued. “I won’t let anyone silence me and silence the thousands of Black and brown residents who I represent. The only way around this is for some of my colleagues to start putting themselves in the shoes of everyday working people.” 

A Period of Mass Confusion in Council Chambers 

The D.C. Council never got the chance to vote on the Rent Stabilized Housing Inflation Protection Emergency Amendment Act on May 30, due to what some council members described Mendelson’s deviation from protocol. 

Hours before the legislative session, Lewis George, Nadeau, and Parker circulated their amendment. 

Pinto’s amendment, as initially written, placed a cap of 8% on elderly and disabled rent-controlled tenants, and 12% on other rent-controlled tenants over a two-year period. The amendment also postponed the 6.9% cap outlined in At large Council member White’s legislation until July for more opportunity to provide clarity around the effects. 

D.C. Council member Matt Frumin (D-Ward 3), responding to the amendment, asked whether the cap could be lowered even further. Meanwhile, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) expressed concern about the delay of the cap further burdening rent-controlled tenants and landlords having the leeway to raise rent by 12% within a year’s time. 

Much to the chagrin of fair housing advocates sitting in the council chambers,  Pinto and Mendelson spent significant time on the dais editing Pinto’s amendment in response to Allen and Frumin’s input. It had even gotten to the point where other council members, including Lewis George and D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (I-At Large) expressed confusion and annoyance with the apparent lack of order. 

After several minutes, Pinto’s newly edited amendment placed a cap of 4% per year for two years for seniors, and 6% for other tenants. Mendelson, after rebuffing Parker’s suggestion that the council table the discussion for another session, decided to postpone the vote on White’s legislation. 

On Monday, Mendelson expressed plans to call Lewis George and other council members. 

In speaking about his decision to address Pinto’s amendment over that of Lewis George, Parker, and Nadeau’s, Mendelson chalked it up to him exerting his will as council chairman, and not necessarily following any particular protocol. 

“I recognized Pinto first on the declaration and on the bill,” Mendelson said. “Whether someone comes first or second doesn’t make much difference. It’s the chairman’s prerogative [but] I want to emphasize that I saw Pinto first which is why I recognized her.”

Some People Ask for a Deeper and Wider Look at Housing Issues 

Since May 1, landlords of rent-controlled units have been allowed to raise rent by 5% on senior and disabled tenants, and 8.9% on all other tenants. At-large Council member White introduced his bill out of an attempt to strike a compromise between landlords and tenants. 

It represented a follow-up to an earlier endeavor to pass emergency legislation that fizzled when the Bowser administration said that it would incur costs. 

Hours before the D.C. Council deliberated on White’s bill on May 30, council members unanimously approved the fiscal year 2024 budget, what Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) would later call one of the worst budgets to come to fruition for working-class District residents. 

During a visit to The Washington Informer office in Congress Heights, the Ward 8 council member spoke at length about housing insecurity, what he described as one of the District’s most pressing issues.  

White recounted participating in a sleep-in at a rent-controlled property where he heard mice running behind the walls. He later touched on his advocacy for residents of Marbury Plaza on Good Hope Road who had been reeling from the dismal conditions of the aging apartment complex. 

Even with his work with the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, White said more must be done to address the economic hardship afflicting residents east of the Anacostia River, especially as it relates to housing. 

White told The Informer that the D.C. government should make investments in the rehabilitation of rent-controlled property, all of which were constructed in the 1970s. This solution, he said, would address landlords’ concerns about their inability to fund repairs while keeping rent-controlled rent low. 

“Where is the billion dollars in affordable housing?” White said. 

“There are some older units in D.C. with equity in it, and there are units with paid-off mortgages. There should be funds to fix up those units,” he added. “D.C. has to be intentional about supporting those units. Raising the rent is not the end all, be all. I don’t know people with incomes that will go up 20 percent in two years.” 

Dean Hunter, CEO of the Small Multifamily Owners Association, echoed White’s sentiments, telling The Informer that much of the onus has been put on rent-controlled building landlords. 

Hunter assumed the helm of the Small Multifamily Owners Association at the height of the pandemic, a period he described as detrimental to rent-controlled landlords. He said that COVID-era rent policies have been of great detriment to landlords, many of who are non-white, elderly and just trying to make their way in an increasingly expensive city.

As it relates to Lewis George, Parker, and Nadeau’s amendment, Hunter questioned whether they understood the magnitude of their legislation on landlords, or even what he described as the real source of housing inequality in the District. 

Hunter indicted rent-controlled tenants gaming the system and developers of large-scale apartments as the real culprits in all the discussion about rent-controlled rent hikes. He said that developers have escaped culpability, even though they’ve only set aside a few affordable units in newly constructed buildings. 

“We need to provide incentives for landlords to rent to people. We need incentives for people to become landlords. We need money to maintain the existing housing stock. We need more small multi-family units,” Hunter said. “People can afford the rent in a small apartment building, not a 200-unit  complex right by a metro station. Right now, rent control applies to anyone regardless of ability or income. There’s no other social program where you don’t have to apply. Why can’t we do that with rent control so people who really need help can get it?”

Source: Published without changes from Washington Informer Newspaper

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