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i want to respond to shaun pharr’s critique (“Government Issues,” Mail, 8/4) of Ryan Grim’s able and probing article (“DCRA: Defending the City’s Ruling Aristocracy,” 6/30). For reasons best known to Pharr, he spent about as much time personally attacking me as he did critiquing the article. Was Pharr speaking on behalf of the Apartment and Office Building Association (AOBA), the trade group that represents many of the big rental housing providers in D.C., since he signed as senior vice president?
If that is the case, then Pharr’s letter represents a sea change in attitude. It was just a short time ago that AOBA pressed me to attend newspaper briefings touting the fact that everyone had come together to achieve a consensus victory on rent control.
That’s all vanished now, replaced by Pharr’s snide references and personal attacks.
To be sure, Pharr does trot out the shopworn AOBA arguments against rent control, even going so far as to suggest that my proposals would have sounded the death knell for rent control and affordable rentals. In point of fact, until our reform measure was passed, D.C. rent control—much to Pharr’s satisfaction—was dying and not a slow death at all.
As demonstrated in an inspector general’s report that I requested, the old law was permitting landlords, especially in gentrifying areas, to take the rent on vacant apartments right through the roof. In building after building, what were once affordable units were being rapidly transformed under this law into luxury apartments. We were ending up with apartment buildings, like the Cleveland House, with just a handful of apartments out of some 225 with monthly rents under $1,000. These buildings had been transformed into luxury, market-rate rentals and the fact that they were still “rent controlled” was virtually meaningless.
This pleased Pharr, who, above all else, wanted the status quo to remain.
However, with the strong support of tenants across the city, we set out to save rent control, and I am glad we did. Annual caps (with special consideration for the elderly and disabled), substantial restraints on rent increases for vacant apartments, simplification of the law by abolition of rent ceilings that (except in a few cases) helped only the landlords—all of that means that rent control in D.C. will have continued vitality. The benefits of the final law are evidenced by the widespread endorsements of tenants and tenant advocates. The 100,000 units of rent-controlled apartments are, after all, the best mechanism we have to hold down rents in our city.
My committee also passed and funded an Office of Chief Tenant Advocate, new laws on tenants’ ability to organize and to obtain information, and a rent supplement program for those who are having difficulty in meeting their monthly rents. We also revived the tenant right-to-purchase law.
In consequence, it’s a new day for tenants in our city.
In doing that, we avoided an AOBA-drafted bill passed over my objections by my committee, but later discarded, which contained all manner of hidden regulatory benefits for landlords that none of my colleagues would ever defend—for example, ingenious clauses that would have severely curtailed tenants’ rights to challenge illegal rent increases and limited their rights to receive rent refunds even for the most serious housing code violations. Despite the better intentions of those who voted for it, the substitute, in any number of crafty ways, indeed would have “all but eliminated rent control.”
Apparently, Pharr was and is happy with DCRA employees who sign letters drafted by the regulated industry without a word being changed. Indeed, DCRA had reached the point of such nonchalance that officials instructed their secretaries to scribble their names for them. No need to even read the letters! And yet it was those letters that extinguished valuable tenant rights to purchase without notice of any kind. So too, no problem with an employee who allowed landlords’ “conversion fee” checks to accumulate in her office drawer uncashed. We still don’t know how many of those checks just simply lapsed, to the benefit of you-know-who. (This performance Pharr terms as “capable.”)
He is also happy with DCRA employees who would have evicted tenants from buildings on the basis of hazard reports done not on those subject properties, but on buildings in Virginia. No need to be concerned about details. Again, no need to even read the documents. In both cases, the industry’s desired result was achieved, and that is what mattered to Pharr. It was also clear evidence of something else that Pharr liked very much: a very cozy relationship between the regulated and the regulator.
But what about the DCRA mission to protect tenants and consumers? That had reached such a nadir that, when I became chairman of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee in January 2005, there was actually a task force that had recommended that the word “consumer” be dropped from the Department’s title as no longer relevant to the business regulation function!
I am pleased to report that the word now, once again, has real meaning. And that DCRA is back on track to fulfill its important mission.
I am not going to dignify with much comment Pharr’s twisted account of my comments at the funeral of Theresa Lewis, the late DCRA chief of staff. Ms. Lewis was a consummate professional, and I know she understood how seriously I take my role as chair of the oversight committee. Pharr tries to score cheap points by twisting a self-deprecating aside in my statement of appreciation for Ms. Lewis’ professional cool and personal dignity. What can one say? Somehow “disingenuous” here falls short of the mark.
We should all do our best to keep in mind what made the remarkable consensus on rent-control reform possible. It was accomplished not by whitewashing serious issues and ignoring inconvenient facts, or by personally attacking those on the other side of the table, but rather by engaging all those areas of strongest disagreement forthrightly, persistently, and with an attitude of mutual respect. Pharr was absent from most of those discussions, but perhaps one of his colleagues might have filled him in on this winning formula.
Chairman, Committee on Consumer and Regulatory AffairsCouncilmember, Ward 1