Mayor Muriel Bowser has created a nearly 30-member group of housing experts tasked with writing recommendations to address the rent crisis. The hope is that the group can come to some kind of consensus on policies like rental assistance and rent control, and offer solutions, according to the mayor’s team.
“The pandemic has had lasting effects on our rental housing market, and it is critical we understand these changes and their impacts on our District renters, particularly our low-income renters who rely on affordable housing options,” said Bowser in a statement when she announced the so-called strike force. “As we continue our recovery, we will prioritize programs and strategies that support the housing needs of residents.”
But the mayor-appointed group has very little perspective from the residents officials say they want to help, say tenant advocates. Who better to advocate for what they need than the renters themselves? It is, however, stacked with members who represent the interests of landlords and developers.
“If the Strike Force’s recommendations are to be given any weight or treated with any seriousness, the Mayor must fix this gross imbalance,” writes Amanda Korber, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society who represents low-income tenants in eviction and housing conditions cases.
The strike force is divided into categories, like councilmembers and research representatives. Korber notes that all but one of the six members in the housing and economic development organizations subgroup exclusively represent landlords and developers. Two of the six are heads of landlord lobbying groups. And the financial services industry subgroup has only one member in it, and that member works somewhere that helps finance affordable housing developers. (See the list of members HERE.)
There is only one tenant representative in the subgroup dedicated to tenant advocates, and there are also no eviction defense lawyers in the strike force. There are a few individuals who aren’t named as tenant advocates but could speak to the interest of renters, including Eva Rosen of Georgetown University. A recent report co-authored by Rosen advocated for the right to legal representation in Landlord-Tenant Court, particularly in eviction proceedings. The report also found that 20 landlords were responsible for nearly half of all eviction filings in 2018, but owned just 21 percent of all rental units. Among the top 10 filers that year was Borger Management, whose CEO is on the strike force. Borger Management was among the top 10 filers in 2020 too. (The report suggests that landlords use court as a means of debt collection.) Alex Baca of Greater Greater Washington is also on the strike force, and Greater Greater Washington is part of the Reclaim Rent Control coalition, which championed a bill that would subject more than 13,000 housing units to rent stabilization.
Given the advisory group’s membership, tenant organizers now aren’t taking it seriously. “Enemies of the rental housing market beware, the forces of order are creating a Strike Force,” tweeted Stomp Out Slumlords, an organization within the local Democratic Socialists of America who—along with the DC Tenants Union—helped to organize hundreds of tenants that lost their jobs during the public health emergency.
Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio is well aware of the criticisms surrounding the membership makeup. He says he’s going to talk to Department of Housing and Community Development Director Polly Donaldson, who chairs the strike force, to see where she lands on this, and then make recommendations to the mayor, who has the final say.
“I think there is good representation from all parties. I think obviously whenever you do a task force there are some who would like to join,” adds Falcicchio.
This isn’t the first time the mayor has announced a strike force or committee with questionable makeup. As City Paper reported last year, the Washington Teachers’ Union was excluded from a committee to reopen schools, and there were only two restaurateurs named to a committee charged with saving restaurants. In both cases the makeup of the committee changed after its initial announcement.
Why does this matter anyways? There are plenty of advisory groups that write reports only to live online and never get implemented. This looks to be different. The last time the mayor created a housing strike force, Bowser adopted all six recommendations from the 18-member advisory group. Members tapped to find ways to maintain affordable housing, for example, suggested in 2016 that D.C. fund a “public-private preservation fund” to “facilitate early investments in preservation deals.” Now, D.C. has the Affordable Housing Preservation Fund, a loan fund for multi-family properties with 5 units or more and where half of the households are low-income. The new strike force’s recommendations are due in mid-March.
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