Among the many problems facing D.C.’s rent-control system—-the loopholes exploited by lawyers, the exceptions exploited by landlords—-is a geeky yet persistent one: a lack of data. Rent control is wildly controversial, with advocates calling it one of the most successful ways to preserve affordable housing and critics slamming it for distorting the market and not targeting low-income renters. But both sides keep running into the same problem: In D.C. and elsewhere, there’s precious little data on which apartments are subject to rent control, who lives there, and how much they pay.
Today, At-Large D.C. Councilmember Anita Bonds, the new chair of the Council’s housing committee, introduced legislation to tackle a piece of this issue. Together with her 10 colleagues, who all co-introduced the bill, Bonds is hoping to create a central database with all housing units in the city that are subject to rent control. The legislation, titled the Rent Control Housing Clearinghouse Amendment Act of 2015, would establish a searchable database where residents could look for rent-controlled units and would provide the city government with better data on those approximately 80,000 units.
In a press release on the legislation, Bonds makes clear that the legislation is all about affordable housing. The 299-word release uses the term “affordable housing” nine times. “This legislation will significantly improve the affordable housing options easily available to residents and the housing industry alike,” Bonds says in the statement.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson quickly jumped on that theme, tweeting:
— Kaya Henderson (@HendersonKaya) March 3, 2015
There’s no question that a database of rent-controlled units could help the city craft better legislation and regulations for the District’s housing stock. But city officials may be overestimating the value to residents in finding affordable housing. Let’s remember that the majority of D.C.’s rental housing is subject to rent control. The rent-control law, which limits annual rent increases to the rate of inflation plus two percent in most cases, applies to all apartments built before 1975, with a few exceptions.
These apartments aren’t always cheap. Many rent-controlled units in wealthier parts of town, like along Connecticut Avenue NW, charge more than low-income residents can afford. And even if inflation is low—-say, 2 percent—-the landlord can still raise the rent by about 50 percent over a decade. And when landlords employ tools like hardship petitions and voluntary agreements, there’s no real limit to rent increases, which can sometimes exceed 100 percent. Additionally, public housing and certain subsidized apartments are exempt from rent control.
So it’s debatable whether a resident searching for an affordable unit would benefit from a database of 80,000 units, many of which are not affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. In fact, if the city’s already going to be creating a database of most of the District’s apartments, you wonder if the database shouldn’t simply include all of the city’s apartments, sortable by metrics that include rent control.
Still, more data is a good thing. And a more comprehensive compilation of the city’s rent-controlled housing stock can only help the District, if maybe not always individual renters.
Update: Bonds spokesman Josh Brown emails to argue that the law will make a difference to affordable-housing hunters. “Nearly across the board rent controlled units are more affordable than their market rate counterparts,” he writes. “There is no doubt that providing individuals with the ability to easily find rent controlled units will be a big help in their search for more affordable housing.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery