Maybe someday, D.C. will have a database listing every single rent-controlled home in the city, a vital resource for tenants and policymakers alike. But Loose Lips is beginning to lose faith it will ever actually materialize.
The Council mandated the creation of such a “clearinghouse” back in 2015, and it was supposed to be finished a year later, but the effort to develop the database has been plagued with delays ever since then. That’s not exactly unusual for the D.C. government, particularly when a politically charged issue like rent control is involved, but things have gotten a bit absurd even by the District’s standards.
The latest hold-up is a strange one: One D.C. agency won’t give another the data it needs to actually finish building the database.
Specifically, the much-maligned Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has spent months withholding information from the Office of the Tenant Advocate, according to the latter agency’s responses to recent Council oversight questions, but it’s unclear what kind of data is at issue. Staff for At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the Council’s housing committee and spearheaded the effort to create the clearinghouse, are hopeful that this dispute will be resolved and the database launched before the end of the year, but there isn’t much clarity on how that will happen. Technically, D.C. law required the database to be online before the end of 2021, but that deadline came and went without much progress, so there is plenty of reason to doubt the project’s timeliness.
It all adds up to one of the more Kafkaesque episodes in D.C.’s long history of bureaucratic snafus, and it has real-world consequences for renters. Advocates say that tenants need this information to determine if their landlord has been raising prices too sharply or too quickly, or to simply tell if D.C.’s rent control law (which applies strict rent standards to all buildings built before 1976) covers their building. Incredibly, there is no centralized record of which District buildings are rent controlled, even though the law has existed for nearly 40 years.
“These agencies exist to serve District residents, and not sharing that data is preventing residents from being able to know their rights and protect their rights,” says Beth Mellen, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society of D.C. and one of the city’s most influential advocates for renters. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s really bad policy overall.”
Multiple officials at both DCRA and OTA, which won the responsibility for developing the database back in 2018, did not respond to LL’s requests for comment on the matter. But the tenant advocate’s position is clear in its February responses to the Council.
“The most recent impediment has been DCRA’s unwillingness or inability to provide the data necessary to complete the database,” the office wrote. “It is unlikely that this project will be completed in [fiscal year 2022]. If we are unable to come to an agreement with DCRA for the transfer of the necessary data, we will be forced to engage in a re-design of certain portions of the project, which will undoubtedly cause a delay.”
Until it (eventually) gets split in two, DCRA collects information about city businesses, like their addresses and top executives, and most people involved in this database drama agree this is likely the data that OTA needs. The database specifically requires information on each building’s owner, and even if a building is owned by a well-known developer or management company, it’s common practice for landlords to create a separate limited liability company that technically “owns” each property. Sorting through all those is quite difficult without information directly from the source—DCRA. The Council even passed a law recently to try and make these LLCs more transparent.
OTA told the Council that it has been trying to access “certain data fields that are critical to the proper operation of the database” since December 2020, without much luck. The agency wrote that it began negotiating with DCRA over creating a system that would let it access that information last September, but those talks broke down a month later and “DCRA has refused to hold any further meetings between the technical experts to finalize the data sets to be provided.”
“Unfortunately, we cannot estimate how much time it will take to resolve these matters,” Chief Tenant Advocate Johanna Shreve told the Council in February.
Ram Uppuluri, Bonds’ housing committee director, says lawmakers have certainly been monitoring the issue since then and have been pleased to see “considerable progress” on bringing the database online. He acknowledged in an email that “there have been issues importing critical data from sister agencies (DCRA), but we are hopeful that those can be worked out.”
“The main framework of the database has been developed, and the system should be operational by the end of the year,” Uppuluri wrote. Lawmakers gave OTA through March 31 to finish the database in another shifting of the goalposts, but even with that deadline passed, Uppuluri believes OTA should still have the money it needs to finish its work once the 2023 budget formally becomes law.
But without any commitments from DCRA (or clear proof that OTA has some sort of workaround), it’s hard for LL to share his optimism. Mellen agrees, noting that the agency’s ultimate plan is to turn the database over to the Department of Housing and Community Development to manage it, which could trigger more complications.
And each day that the database isn’t available, Mellen says renters are being robbed of valuable information.
Consider, for instance, that owners of rent-controlled buildings are barred from raising the rent if it’s been less than a year since the previous increase. Tenants could easily access this timeline in the database instead of hunting down past notices from their landlord about a rent hike. Plus, renters moving into a rent-controlled building may have no idea when the owner last raised prices. There’s even a little-noticed provision in D.C. law that requires all owners of rent-controlled buildings to re-register with the city 90 days after the database comes online. Mellen notes that anyone hoping to win an exemption from the rent control law will need to file paperwork again too. If they don’t, their buildings will be covered by the law, whether they won a past exemption or not.
That matters for individual renters, but Mellen notes the database would enable even more systemic reforms. Attorneys could use the database to “identify patterns of problematic activity by landlords,” Mellen says, helping them sue big companies abusing the system.
And if the Council ever takes up rent control reform again in a meaningful way, lawmakers could work with real data instead of just making educated guesses. If there’s ever a majority to, say, expand rent control to all buildings constructed since 2005 (as some advocates want), wouldn’t it be nice to know how many properties that would actually affect?
All of those changes would be beneficial to tenants, and not so much for large property owners who benefit from the system’s current slapdash construction. And those interests generally get what they want from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, so LL isn’t holding his breath that it will work to launch this database until it absolutely must.