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It’s Justify Your Existence Week down at the Wilson building, where Councilmembers are hearing testimony on the proposed budget, department by department. Last week, schools and environmental programs fought for their survival. On Monday, it was the Office of the Tenant Advocate’s turn.
The small office, composed of 15.5. full-time-equivalent staffers, was born in 2005 with the help of Councilmember Jim Graham. It has been a thorn in the side of landlords—besides helping tenants redress grievances on a case-by-case basis, the office has also advanced legislation to help tilt the playing field in favor of renters (the OTA has been a force in working for tenant organization standing, for example, and the new Housing Conditions Calendar).
It could be more difficult to do that next year. The FY 11 budget took the OTA’s budget down from $3.5 million to $1.5 million—almost a 60 percent hit, and a loss of seven staff positions (the Office of the People’s Counsel, in contrast, got a modest increase). Tenant advocates at Monday’s hearing characterized the cut as a death sentence.
“You call it a regulatory visit by Don Corleone, followed up by Tony Soprano,” said Jim McGrath, chairman of the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition. “It’s chloroforming an agency. Its agency euthanasia. And it’s no accident. It’s a political and economic outrage. “
Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, chair of the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, is trying to find a couple million bucks to plug the hole. But that means it’s going to have to come from somewhere else.
“As passionately as we feel about it, we have to be practical as well,” Bowser told the small audience.
Graham showed up to voice his strong support, saying he was trying to scrounge up some cash from his budget at the committee on Public Works and Transportation. But he also cautioned that the situation could have been worse: In the Fenty administration’s very first draft, the OTA had been zeroed out completely, and Graham had to fight for even the slim line item to be restored. And it wasn’t entirely the Mayor’s fault, he cautioned.
“I think we have to charitably allow for the fact that he is not involved in every decision,” Graham said. “That’s the whole story of this issue. We’ve held on the to the OTA, now we’ve got to make sure it has some money.”