Sign up for our free newsletter
Early in his first term, Mayor Anthony A. Williams addressed a civic gathering on a range of subjects, including the changes he planned to make in the city government’s attitude toward fiscal restraint, public service, and common-sense policy. I expressed a fear that voters, browbeaten into voting for Williams by the implicit threat of receivership embodied in the control board, would revert to form after his time in office was finished, just as they had voted out Walter Washington, held over from the pre-home-rule government, in favor of Marion Barry, whom they then four times elected. I insisted that, unless fundamental changes were made in the character or composition of the electorate, the reforms Williams so desperately wanted to make would be reversed. In suave political jargon, Williams assured the audience that he would do what needed to be done to make sure the reforms were lasting.
Ryan Grim’s “Defending the City’s Ruling Aristocracy” (6/30) is a tour de force, skillfully knitting together wide-ranging, seemingly disparate facts and experiences to paint a big picture of how Williams undertook to see to it that a social-democratic electorate, inured to such anti–free market precepts as rent control, was reshaped into a more centrist one so his legacy would not be reversed. This reshaping was accomplished largely through housing policy, stealthily and artfully wrought by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), that paved the way as much as politically possible for the city’s political transformation from coddled rent-controlled tenants to gentrifiers, urban pioneers, and condo owners, where property rights, the foundation of our American system, would at last get some respect.
“Defending the City’s Ruling Aristocracy” is a great contribution to the historical record as, alone among the major local publications, it chronicles the ways and means by which this transformation was accomplished and records it for posterity.
The article, regrettably, failed to focus on how the structure of the landlord lobby facilitated this approach. Apartment- and office-building owners are not naturally a coherent interest. Apartment-building owners have an interest in charging free-market rents and defeating rent control, whereas office-building owners have an interest in weaseling development benefits from the government (such as zoning waivers, aka “Planned Unit Developments”), taking over public space for private uses such as sidewalk cafes, etc. But by merging these two disparate interests, a quiet deal can be struck whereby residential landlords tolerate rent control in exchange for virtual carte blanche for commercial buildings. Property holders learn the ropes, diversify so they hold both marginal rent-controlled properties and ultra-profitable commercial buildings subsidized by favorable city regulatory treatment, zoning concessions, etc. The same behind-the-scenes techniques used to gain favorable treatment for commercial buildings, however, also work for rental property owners wanting to turn them into condos. Were the landlord lobby and major landowners not so integrated, the apartment-building owners and residential real estate industry would be lobbying for congressional repeal of rent control rather than tolerating it in exchange for these other considerations.
One minor quibble: When a developer posts a warranty bond, such as Rami Badaway’s $100,000 for the 14-unit Columbia Heights condo into which Michele Bouquet and her condo association members bought, the $100,000 is still “his” in the same sense as a renter’s security deposit. It might not be “his” in terms of physical control, but he has a legal interest in it. The DCRA staff was correct in respecting that legal interest and granting his contractor access to the property for inspection so he could adequately defend his interest in recovering the full value of the warranty bond, which like a tenant, he forfeits only if the work fails to meet standards. For the DCRA managers to have felt they had to mislead condo owners and the councilman with oversight responsibility for giving the condo owners the warranty bond right away, when it is not even theirs to give until the warranty bond poster is afforded constitutional due process, says much about how elected officials wielding power endanger civil liberty.
One would think suckers who buy condos would have thorough independent home inspections beforehand. One would also think warranty bonds would gather interest the same way renters’ security deposits do so that both the bond poster and the condo owners to whom it might have to be forfeited might benefit.