The District’s rent control law will expire by the end of the year, and it will almost certainly be extended for another decade. But tenant organizers are hoping to make a few fixes to it on the way.

For months now, groups convened by the Office of the Tenant Advocate have been pouring over the Rent Control Act of 1985 and all its amendments. At the OTA’s third annual tenant summit at Gallaudet University on Saturday, working group leaders presented their draft recommendations for how it ought to be tweaked as councilmembers take up reauthorization in the coming months.

The District is generally thought of as having strong tenant protections. But Cynthia Pols, who headed up the enforcement working group, observed that many imperfections were “baked in the cake” during the messy process of getting the law passed a quarter century ago. Some “loopholes” have even widened, like a landlord’s right to a 12 percent rate of return on rental buildings, which crept up from its original eight percent.

Now, activists figure the current Council is more friendly to tenant-friendly reforms than it’s ever been, and they have a long list of necessary changes, either for this upcoming renewal process or for later amendments. Here are a few of the major ones:

  • Eliminate the extra two percent per year that landlords are allowed to increase rent on top of increases in the regional consumer price index (CPI).
  • For years that the CPI decreases, rents must also decrease.
  • For seniors and disabled people, rents may increase as much as the CPI or by that year’s increase in the Social Security cost of living adjustment, whichever is less.
  • Civil penalties of between $5,000 and $10,000 per unit for the first violation and $15,000 to $25,000 for subsequent violations.
  • The city should maintain a database of current information about ownership, rents, and occupancy of rental buildings supplied by housing providers, with civil penalties for failing to submit data or submitting incorrect data.
  • Hardship petitions: Eliminate provisional rent increases taken while a petition is pending (already in legislation before the Council), reduce the guaranteed rate of return from 12 percent to 8 percent, and if a housing provider’s returns exceed 11 percent, rents should be rolled back.

Most of these, with the exception of a recommendation making it easier for seniors and disabled people to prove their status, and the hardship petition legislation already working its way through the Council, probably won’t be achieved before the end of the year. And no matter how sympathetic Councilmembers may be, groups like the Apartment and Office Building Association would fight hard against anything cutting into the profit margin to which landlords are entitled by law. It’s hard to unbake cakes.

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