As currently written, D.C.’s rent control laws expire every five years, and the current cycle ends with 2010. Rather than simply re-authorizing the regulations, the city council wants to extend the renewal period to at least ten years, if not indefinitely—at their last legislative meeting, all 13 members co-introduced a bill that would make rent control permanent.
Tenant advocates argue that the shortage of affordable rental housing in the District makes long-term protections essential for ensuring the stability and quality of the housing stock. And Councilmember Jim Graham, perhaps the Council’s loudest defender of tenants rights, says it’s just making rent control like any other law.
“It is the unanimous view of the council that rent control should be made permanent in the sense of other laws, and if we want to change it, we can amend the law,” Graham said. “We don’t sunset other laws, and I think the view of the council is that we shouldn’t sunset this either.”
At a round table on the subject today in the council’s Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, however, housing providers put up a staunch defense. Rent control makes it difficult for small apartment building owners to use property as a long-term investment, complained Borger Management chairman Thomas Borger. Nicola Whiteman, of the Apartment and Office Builders Association, maintained that the council shouldn’t undertake an indefinite extension of rent control without first updating its comprehensive housing plan.
Those arguments aren’t likely to sway a critical mass of councilmembers, especially if the bill comes to a vote before the September primary—who wants to be the scrooge who voted against rent control? What could pose a greater threat in the longer term, though, is a constitutional challenge: The District’s rent control laws are authorized on the basis of an “emergency” situation. As Borger put it, “that would be saying an emergency exists in perpetuity, and that flies in the face of reality.”
That was why Council Chairman Vince Gray declined to support the indefinite extension of rent control at a TENAC mayoral forum, his subsequent co-introduction of a bill to that effect notwithstanding.
An actual would-be killer of indefinite rent control appeared in the form of Vincent M. Policy, a real estate attorney at the firm of Greenstein DeLorme and Luchs, who said he would sue if such a law were enacted.
“I have no doubt that I can find a client to do that,” Policy told Graham, who stared daggers at the panel of landlords and their advocates.
The sunset period may hold one important advantage for tenants, however. Three members of stakeholder working groups sponsored by the Office of the Tenant Advocate had other proposed changes to rent control laws—lowering the allowed rent increases and getting rid of loopholes, mostly—that they said would be most efficient to do when the set of rules comes up for review.
“Reauthorization, yes, but with reform,” said Mary Young of the Idaho Terrace Tenants Association. “It would be simpler and less time-consuming for the Council to address the issues at the same time.”
That’s the function that the sunset period for rent control has served already: It forces lawmakers to look at the rules and see if anything needs changing, for better or for worse. Without that defined period, it happens in bits and pieces, or not at all.