At-Large Councilmember Robert White at Mayor Bowser's 2023 budget presentation. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

We’re four months into At-Large Councilmember Robert White’s tenure as housing committee chair, and the honeymoon period with tenant advocates is pretty much over. It seems the distinction of simply not being Anita Bonds could only carry him so far.

Loose Lips has been hearing some grumbling for weeks now about White’s handling of measures to cap impending rent hikes for people in rent-controlled apartments. The chatter has only intensified in recent days. White is getting close to prevailing in his efforts to set a cap lower than the 8.9 percent increases the city recently approved, a goal that Mayor Muriel Bowser blocked him from achieving last month, and that is undoubtedly welcome news for activists. But White’s willingness to embrace a compromise with the landlord lobby is rubbing some the wrong way.

Specifically, White is advancing plans that would let landlords raise rents by 6.9 percent for the next two years, an amount more in line with what the city allowed last year (the 8.9 percent figure drew outrage as the largest increase permitted in the past two decades by the Rental Housing Commission, which regulates prices for rent-controlled units). Activists are hoping for a 5 percent cap instead. They argue that many of the roughly 90,000 tenants in these homes still haven’t recovered from the worst shocks of the pandemic. And basically anyone whose lease is almost up has already received notice of their landlords pursuing the full 8.9 percent increase after the new cap took effect May 1, tenant advocates say.

They’d prefer to convince White of the wisdom of their position, since he’s driving this discussion as housing chair. But they’re also gaining confidence that a majority on the Council would override him and support the 5 percent cap if he won’t budge.

“We’re really counting on Robert to be the champion for renters he said he wanted to be,” says Kush Kharod, an organizer working with tenants, excluded workers, and other left-wing advocates focused on the D.C. budget.

White tells LL that he understands where activists are coming from on the issue, but he believes the 6.9 percent figure is the best way to simultaneously “limit rent increases in rent-controlled units as much as possible, reduce any loss of affordable housing, and reduce any chances that maintenance would get worse in the units people are living in.” He feels the number is “the right compromise in an emergency situation to make sure we’re not causing any collateral damage” in the real estate market.

“Smaller building owners are thinking about getting out of the housing business,” White says. “And that doesn’t bode well for the District. Buildings are not often sold from one small, local firm to another. They’re sold to national corporations. And that is not in the best interest of our residents.”

If landlords can’t recover some of their increased costs on things like utilities, labor, or maintenance, particularly after rents were largely frozen through the height of the pandemic, White fears they’ll simply convert these buildings into condos to try and turn more of a profit. The smaller owners White is hoping to protect would probably first need to sell the property to do that, LL might note, but it’s not out of the question.

“We’ve seen what happens in other jurisdictions when landlords can’t raise rents to keep up with costs: Buildings deteriorate,” says Eric Jones, top lobbyist for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, who believes White’s 6.9 percent figure is a reasonable compromise. “It sets a bad precedent and leads to all sorts of bad situations.”

To activists, White’s embrace of these arguments suggests that he’s just parroting property owners and their lobbyists. After enduring Bonds’ propensity to do just that for years, it’s a particularly sore subject.

Damiana Dendy, a housing organizer with D.C. Jobs with Justice, says she’s spoken with many tenants whose landlords have raised rents at every opportunity, yet “a lot of issues with these buildings haven’t been fixed and are as persistent as ever.”

Plus, she observes that landlords are already allowed to ask for permission to raise rents above the city-imposed caps if they can prove they’re taking on major maintenance projects. Arguments that landlords desperately need the extra few percentage points on the rent cap “just don’t hold water,” Dendy says, when their real motivations are pursuing larger profits.

“The difference amounts to probably a couple dozen dollars per month in rent for each tenant,” says Elizabeth Falcon, executive director of Jobs with Justice. “How damaging is that to landlords? Probably not very. But it could have a really meaningful impact on residents.”

The real question is what the rest of the Council thinks. Dendy is confident that there’s a majority to support the 5 percent cap based on her conversations around the Wilson Building. But LL hears that many are deferring to White on this issue so far. Even left-leaning lawmakers such as Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George are waiting to see exactly what White proposes before staking out firmer positions. The question, then, becomes who takes the lead on advancing an alternative to White’s plan?

Perhaps the best hope for activists is Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker, who circulated a proposal for a 5 percent cap when this debate first started heating up in early April. Parker won a lot of credit among lefties for his willingness to take the lead on an ultimately unsuccessful plan to raise new revenue in the budget. A spokesperson for Parker says “he’s committed to working with White (and other colleagues) on a proposal to maximize relief to renters.”

There’s still a good bit of uncertainty about the procedural moves required to make this happen. White secured a crucial first step in the process when he convinced Council Chair Phil Mendelson to include $100,000 in his 2024 budget proposal, which passed on a first vote last week, that will help the Department of Housing and Community Development enforce a new rent cap. Astute observers of this issue may recall DHCD insisted that it would need money to hire staffers and notify landlords about the new cap and sank White’s proposal in April. He had pitched emergency legislation, which can’t pass if there are costs associated with it.

Spokespeople for DHCD didn’t respond to LL’s request for comment, but White is confident the $100,000 will be more than enough to overcome Bowser’s (highly suspect) cost concerns. But the mechanism to impose the new rent increase cap will have to come separately from that budget allocation.

White says he’s still deciding whether to pursue language to set the cap via the Budget Support Act (essentially, a package of legislation designed to implement the budget’s changes) or to introduce stand-alone legislation on the topic. Either way, he’s got a tight timeline if he hopes to get this passed before the Council packs up for its two-month summer break. Lawmakers will likely take up the BSA for a final vote at their June 6 meeting, and gatherings on June 20 and July 11 are the last things standing between them and summer vacation.

For what it’s worth, Dean Hunter, the colorful former Council candidate turned lobbyist for small landlords, tells LL that pursuing this rent cap via the budget instead of separate legislation would be “shameful.” “To restrict property rights in such a manner, with no data and no opportunity for public input would be grounds for recall,” he writes in an email typical of his incendiary style of advocacy.

The wildly divergent viewpoints from advocates on the left and right on the issue demonstrate the challenges White will face in the next year-and-a-half he’s guaranteed to chair the housing committee.

On the one hand, his work on housing issues will earn him lots of headlines (particularly for his efforts to fix the D.C. Housing Authority). But on the other, he’ll often find himself stuck between alienating either deep-pocketed business groups or progressive advocates with lots of organizing muscle. Not exactly the ideal spot for a councilmember if they have aspirations for higher office once again.

White has, at least, been able to cast his work in stark opposition to some of Bowser’s key decisions on housing matters, including her obstinance on the rent cap issue. Whether that’s enough to placate activists in the long run is very much an open question.

“We made very substantial progress on housing from where we started with the mayor’s budget,” White says. “We’re saving the city a lot of heartache in the years to come.”