At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds
At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

Phil Mendelson is agitated, and he apologizes for sounding like it. 

The D.C. Council chairman has been advocating for months in favor of a bill introduced by his colleague, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, that would exempt tenants living in single-family homes from the protections of TOPA, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. And most people, he thinks, are getting the wrong idea about the bill. 

Last May, NBC4 published a series of five-alarm reports under the headline “Homes Held Hostage.” Some D.C. renters, the station’s investigative team found, are “exploiting” TOPA to extort “high-dollar payouts” and block home sales, largely thanks to a cottage industry of attorneys who use this law to prey on homeowners.

The tenant-friendly act, passed in 1980, gives renters the first right of refusal should a homeowner decide to sell. But a series of provisions (some would say “loopholes”) allowing tenants to sell their TOPA rights to third parties—who can negotiate exorbitant moving costs or extended move-out dates for tenants—have reportedly made it more time-consuming and expensive for homeowners to sell. 

When Bonds first introduced her bill last June, a month after NBC4’s initial report, it targeted apartments within owner-occupied homes, and was a measure most people, including tenant advocates, could get behind. As chair of the Committee on Housing and Community Development, Bonds formed a working group to examine the issue, inviting stakeholders on all sides. The group discussed potential adjustments to TOPA such as eliminating third party assignment rights and reducing the amount of time renters could sit on a decision to buy. 

But in the months since, emotional testimonies from homeowners and strong pressure from Realtors associations, who have shown up in droves to support Bonds’ bill, have steered the measure in a different and more extreme direction. 

The bill now removes all single family homes from the protections of TOPA. 

Top brass at DC Association of Realtors maintains that Bonds’ bill is “a compromise,” yet a room full of realtors booed Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau when she tried to temper the bill with an amendment that would continue TOPA protections for tenants who have lived in their homes and paid rent for a decade or more.

Mendelson, who was an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner when then-Mayor Marion Barry first signed TOPA into law nearly 40 years ago, has taken on the mantle of promoting, explaining, and defending Bonds’ bill. He’s frustrated about the greater narrative of the Council’s actions here—about looking like a villain to tenants and their advocates. In response to what he calls  “disinformation” about the bill, his office published a fact sheet answering and dismissing its criticisms.

On March 9, two days after the Council gave an initial green light to Bonds’ bill with a decisive 10-2 vote, Mendelson said, “If I sound annoyed, it is because what I think happened in the last week-and-a-half is these couple of bad actors who boast about the millions they’ve made [from TOPA] have stirred this up as an affordable housing issue,” he says. He doesn’t think it is. He says TOPA in meant to protect tenants from being suddenly displaced. 

The bill’s supporters also argue that few tenants in single-family homes rely on TOPA to purchase their homes anyway. According to data collected by D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development, only about three to five families in single-family homes do so each year, and that’s out of hundreds who are given the opportunity. (In fiscal year 2015, there were 1,112 single-family home TOPA offers.)

During a September 2017 hearing on the bill, a parade of homeowners and realtors gave shape to their narrative. There was the witness who said he decided to purchase a home in Maryland instead of D.C. so he wouldn’t have to deal with TOPA complications; the witness who said she knew of an elderly couple who suffered $200,000 in loses because their tenant sold her TOPA rights to a third party. “There are for-profit actors that have been very active with scores, if not hundreds, of transactions [and have made it so that] homeowners have had to pay off a tenant to move,” Mendelson said. “I hear it over and over.” 

And so, just shy of the one-year anniversary of NBC4’s reporting and six months after the hearing that changed the course of this debate, the Council is poised to make a final vote on Bonds’ bill. If it passes—and it’s expected to—it will mark the most significant alteration to the city’s rent laws in years.

The story of longtime D.C. resident Evan Yeats serves as a counternarrative to the one homeowners and realtors tell. About three years ago, the summer before his son started Pre-K 3, Yeats and his wife rented a rowhouse in Petworth. The 3rd Street NW house was “home-y,” Yeats says—the kind of place where your neighbors always sat on their porch, and you’d build vegetable gardens and share the bumper crop with them. 

“We moved there and just loved it,” he says. “We thought we’d be there for a while.” But in the early fall of 2016, a few months after Yeats and his wife had a second child, their landlord gave them an official notice that he wanted to sell. Yeats and his wife immediately saw bills stacking up: Renting at $2,400, the couple faced coughing up thousands of dollars for a security deposit, rent, and moving expenses. “So we said we’d be interested in buying,” Yeats says. 

But when they received their TOPA paperwork, they saw their landlord was trying to sell the two-bedroom house for $650,000—nearly $150,000 over its market value, despite its need for renovations that would cost tens of thousands of dollars. After months of negotiations, Yeats and his wife gave up on trying to buy the house, which eventually sold for nearly $40,000 less than the original asking price. But because of TOPA, they secured $7,000 from their landlord to cover moving costs.

“It’s heartless to say that renters who are trying to successfully make a move and find a good place for their kids to live are extortionists, when my out-of-town landlord will take $500,000 out of D.C. and laugh all the way to the bank,” says Yeats. 

The point that tenant advocates are trying to make with stories like Yeats’ is, in part, that TOPA is beneficial even for those who don’t end up buying their home—that tenants shouldn’t have to drain their savings to quickly move, or be forced out of their homes the same month they’re welcoming a child into the world.

D.C.’s Chief Tenant Advocate, Johanna Shreve, wrote an open letter to Mendelson on March 2 arguing that the bill “does not achieve the balance” of meeting concerns both of homeowners and tenants, and goes “beyond the problems of TOPA [this] measure was intended to address, and, in my opinion, beyond the rationales for reform as presented in the committee report.” DHCD Director Polly Donaldson, meanwhile, testified in September that she “forsees that the proposed bill will result in housing providers taking expedient and evasive tactics.”

During the March 7 Council vote, peering over a sea of disgruntled Realtors wearing cheery yellow “FixTOPA” stickers, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman ran through the litany of concerns articulated by supporters and detractors: that some tenants have proven manipulative and exploitative, forcing homeowners to hemorrhage money; that, regardless, there are more honest tenants than exploitative ones, and that the good ones deserve some breathing room to find a new home if they can’t afford to buy. 

“So who’s right?” she asked a silent room. “All of you. All of you are right.”

Silverman and Nadeau are expected to vote against the bill.