At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Although development is booming across the District—increasing property values, rents, and the number of neighborhood amenities—many residents continue to live under neglectful management that doesn’t respond adequately, if at all, to serious maintenance issues. And while those residents are forced to endure broken heat, pests, and other ills, their landlords are able to generate significant profits.

That’s why Elissa Silverman, an at-large member of the D.C. Council, says she introduced new legislation on Tuesday that would stop the most egregious repeat violators of the District’s housing code from creating new business entities and growing their property portfolios.

The bill would empower the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is responsible for inspecting rental buildings and assessing fines for violations, to deny basic business licenses and building permits to landlords who surpass a given threshold of major violations.

In the draft bill, that threshold is defined as more than five “Class 1 infractions” recorded within a year: for example, infractions that pose an imminent danger to health or safety; the failure to fix unsafe structures; and not complying with stop-work orders or permit requirements.

The legislation targets any “person or business” that has an “ownership or member interest” in a property with this many problems. It also would apply for as long as the Class 1 infractions are being remediated and for the year after the last Class 1 infraction was remediated.

“Being a slumlord shouldn’t be a viable business model,” says Silverman, who is up for re-election next year. “Stopping bad actors starts with their bottom line.”

The legislation received several cosponsors on Thursday. DCRA would be the city agency to enforce the bill, which currently doesn’t set a specific level of ownership or membership interest for the agency to deny someone a business license or building permit. (It could be as little as one percent, so long as the landlord-entity that the person is affiliated with has accrued over five Class 1 violations in a year.)

This isn’t the only step D.C. has recently taken to crack down on slumlords, including taking them to court, hiring additional housing inspectors, and ratcheting up fines. In addition, Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration has asked lawmakers to grant DCRA more authority to subpoena landlords for information on their corporate structures.

But as of today, Silverman says, nothing in the law bars the worst landlords from acquiring new properties and expanding their businesses. In turn, this puts the District’s lowest-income residents at risk of harm, displacement, or homelessness.

A committee hearing on the legislation has yet to be scheduled.