The Battle for Rent Control

Gary Z.
Editor and Contributor


It’s summer in the District of Columbia – although it may not seem like it. Pools, drinking holes, and other sources of public recreation are in meager form, as fear of coronavirus plagues the social conscious. Public parks and downtown roads are incapable of accommodating the mass organizing and activism that has tended to swell under the warmth of summer months. If DC’s warm days and cool nights might be intoxicating enough for some to forget that 440 residents have lost their lives to the coronavirus, the onset of economic catastrophe has prevented many of us from acting on it.

Hope for national relief is dim - the upcoming November election is now being presented as a choice between a return to neoliberal market dominance or further descent into the fascist nightmare unleashed by the Republicans in 2016. But where national moods drop, and elected leaders fail to act, local activists continue to build a political vision that provides reason for hope. With the primary elections upon us and city rent control laws set to expire, the fault lines that surround the affordable housing debate seem to orient around a single question: can DC institute affordable housing policies that properly protect tenants, or is affordable housing in DC simply unobtainable?

The local battle for rent control occurs in a city marred by anxieties over gentrification and displacement. A 2019 study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition noted that DC faces the “highest intensity of gentrification” of any US city. Cultural organizers have been rallying around the banner of Don’t Mute DC in order to ensure cultural hallmarks of the city are not destroyed by new development. And the city has found itself, even before the coronavirus, struggling to grapple with changing consumption trends which make the city inhospitable to many older businesses in the city, resulting in the closing of many haunts and gathering points (RIP The Pinch) across the city, a pattern almost certain to be exacerbated by the impact of coronavirus. All of this has contributed to a disjointed sense of unease about place in the city. Although the cranes swinging overhead were promised to enrich, rather than replace, the local character of Washington, that promise seems more and more suspect every day.

The lack of affordable units is compounded by, or maybe a result of, growing inequality within the city. A study from the Urban Institute suggests that recent job growth had been concentrated in low- and high-wage jobs– since 2010, where only a quarter of new jobs had been middle wage. Households in the region with incomes below $54,300 spend more than 30% of household income on rent or mortgage, implying that it is not just low-wage workers being strained by household costs. Population increases (dulled by recent outflow trends from the district) and an insufficient supply of new units has resulted in a steady increase in the price of housing. The report also found that between 2010 and 2017, rental units of less than $1,299 (adjusted for inflation) have decreased by over 10,000, while housing units over $1,300 have increased by over 20,000 – suggesting that new housing over the past ten years has been created with a mind to higher costs. The result is a serious deficit in housing for lowest and low income households.

Although many city leaders have paid lip-service to this crisis (and in some cases, misleading the public on the actions they’ve taken to address it), there is little evidence of a concerted plan by current city leadership to seriously tackle the crisis. But where the government fails, the people act: citizen groups have responded by building their own platforms and political channels in order to answer this dilemma. These efforts metastasized into the Reclaim Rent Control campaign, which began last year, that has not only defined a clear set of policies to address housing in the city, but assembled a diverse set of allies across the city to champion the cause.

The campaign and its allies have provided platforms and power to candidates running for elected office in the city. Many have found themselves willing to actively address the Campaign’s allies and groups in online discussions and forums. In particular, the platform has provided a strong base for the campaign of Janeese Lewis George in Ward 4, a long-time resident who was previously an attorney in the District’s Office of the Attorney General. Given that her campaign has attracted the endorsement of Attorney General Karl Racine, At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, various unions and a whole host of citizen groups in the city, there is renewed hope that some leaders in DC are willing to provide a path for citizen driven, rather than developer-designed, housing policies. If the Ward 4 gambit is successful, we may finally witness a new political coalition in the city that is capable of upsetting the rogue’s gallery of well-connected interests that has been apathetic to addressing the extant housing crisis.

Historically, city leaders have been hesitant to strengthen rent control as policy in order to ensure investors are not scared away by its constraints. And so attempts to placate residents have resulted in a gamut of supply-side mechanisms built into the DC government that are meant to address the issue of housing affordability without scaring developer interests (which have been summed up in great detail by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute). If these policies do have promise for expanding housing affordability in the city, they have not been used significantly. The District Opportunity to Purchase (DOPA) may be one of the most powerful policy options in the city’s arsenal – and yet to date, the action has never been used. In fact, a framework for its use was just completed in 2019, ten years following its enactment in 2008. The First Right to Purchase Assistance Program (FRAP) and Local Rent Subsidies also exist, but have received limited use and have realized inconsistent increases in funding. But even these measures, where they could certainly be considered useful in making units affordable at the margins, raises equity concerns in that these mechanisms ensure the profit of property owners are bolstered from city coffers. And the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a large tranche of funding that is supposed to be used to encourage the production of affordable housing in the city, has been shown to be insufficient at best or corrupt at worst: a 2018 audit noted that the fund has been little more than a payout for developers, where unit affordability could not be properly verified in the data produced. If these tools have truly assisted in addressing housing unaffordability at the margins, they have not put enough downward pressure on rents so as to significantly abate housing concerns in the city.

There are legitimate critiques of rent control as policy, in that on its own the policy doesn’t address housing deficit. If not paired with additional government action, rent control policies risk exacerbating extant biases in access to housing along race, gender, or class lines. However, in observing the lack of political will on part of the city to use the wide range of alternate tools available to them, I surmise that these arguments come from either indifference to the problem, fear of upsetting the city’s investment class, or just bad faith. Activists and proponents of the Reclaim Rent Control campaign have been clear to note that rent control is hardly a replacement for the gamut of policies that seek to encourage equity in housing access: it’s just the beginning. If rent control is the least the city can do to address the concerns of district residents, these previously implemented tools, which are nothing to balk at, provide leaders with a wide range of options to deal with insufficiencies of rent control.

Rent control is meant to ensure tenants are protected from displacement. But because current rent control laws in DC are limited in scope, there are just too many “loopholes” (to the extent that we should see them as loopholes rather than corrupt carveouts for monied interests) that engender too many exceptions which make it difficult for the laws to achieve their purpose citywide. As detailed in an anecdote in Greater Greater Washington, even where options are available to stymie rent increases, loopholes “[put tenants] in the uncomfortable position of negotiating away future affordability in an attempt to protect themselves from substantial rent increases.” It’s with mind to the shortcomings of current policy that Reclaim Rent Control has built its policy framework. Strengthening the laws on the books ensures that rent control can be used to protect tenants and preserve affordable housing city-wide, not just enjoyed piece-meal.

In all this, I stress that the point of rent control is about promising consistency to district residents. Under this sort of city-wide policy, all residents enjoy the guarantee that regardless of where they live and who they are. And this implies that any individual or family that settles into a housing accommodation can know that they will not be forced to shoulder an unexpected financial shock that threatens their ability to stay where they are. What this enables is the ability to plan household or individual expenses for more than a year out; and with this comes the expanded capacity to plant (or nurture) roots in the community you live. If ensuring consistency in the lives of residents is not a way to stymie displacement and combat gentrification, what is?

Recent actions taken by the city show that city leaders understand the connection between rent control and hardship implied by displacement or rent increases. The city’s swift implementation of rent-control in response to coronavirus shows that there is an understanding of how inhumane and ill-advised it is to ask residents to deal with rent increases and evictions during times of public health and economic crisis. The city now has a responsibility make this freeze permanent. Workers need to be able to maintain spaces of safety and control for both their mental and physical health; this is true during “normal” times, but is all the more relevant given the health and economic calamity imposed by the spread of coronavirus. An inability to recognize and abate risk of eviction or financial hardship increases the threat of contagion, or forces residents to take dangerous risks in order to meet unexpected financial inflammation.

And if rent control was considered the least the city could do pre-coronavirus, going further to enshrine protections for those who can’t pay should be considered necessary. The spurt in active rent strikes in the district, inspired by the ongoing strikes in Alexandria, comes from the inability of average residents across the DMV to make ends meet during times of public health terror and economic collapse. Where rent jubilees may have been considered a fringe idea in a pre-COVID world, they now might be the clearest way the city can ensure that our friends and neighbors are not forced to expose themselves to undue risk, hardship, or depletion of private savings in order to make sure they are not evicted following the “end” of this crisis. And so the DC Tenants Union is now asking the city to go further – rent freeze or outright cancellation.

There is evidence that the city understands how critical housing is to economic and public health in the District. In a 79-page report released last week by ReOpen DC, the advisory group tasked with guiding the district in its economic response to the pandemic, page 58 of the document highlighted the necessity of “[regarding] housing as an extension of health care particularly for housing insecure residents.” That the ReOpen committee at least acknowledges the imperative of sustainable housing is a start – but if the group is to gain legitimacy in the eyes of a desperate and scared public, they will need to commit to harder proposals, rather than just gesture at potential solutions. There may be options short of rent jubilee that could be used to control for housing instability, but to the extent that policies are means-tested, they risk subjecting individuals to the frustration and unclear web of administrative burdens needed to be surmounted by already stressed households in order to access relief. If fear that universal jubilee might summon crocodile tears from an investment class afraid of realizing a month of reduced returns, we might instead demand that they, rather than tenants, be the ones forced to jump through administrative hurdles to access relief.

In the end, we must remember that elected officials and city government will not act to address the issue of housing unaffordability on their own. If citizen groups do not actively organize and resist against these threats, this problem will not be solved – poor communities will be forced to risk life for rent, wealth will continue to be concentrated among the city’s wealthiest, and city policies will continue to orient around developer interests rather than care for District residents.

The Reclaim Rent Control campaign has shown that diverse sets of actors are capable or organizing, uniting, and building channels for change in the face of adversity. Stomp Out Slumlords, a tenant advocacy group that has been organizing tenants in the city to push back against slumlords for the past three years, has just launched a blog to demonstrate how to organize tenants and build broader coalitions. ONE DC organized a Day of Action on May 28th in order to make sure the response from city leaders are on the record. And joining banners stating “No Jobs, No Rent!” which have begun unfurling across apartment buildings in the city, a mosey through DC will reveal compelling street art, reminding the masses that we do not need to accept the status quo. All of this suggests that a wide alliance of residents are coming together to reject the poverty and uncertainty of the current system. In a way, this was always the hard part; now it’s time to build a political channel capable of making all this a reality.