by Julian Forth
Apart from government assisted affordability or the dubious Inclusionary Zoning program, the Rent Stabilization Program (“rent control”) is the only mechanism that provides affordable housing in the District. Rent control, which restricts the rent increases on qualified units to a small percentage once per year, has the primary goal to “protect low- and moderate-income tenants from the erosion of their income from increased housing costs.” These programs are being systematically undermined and result in the erosion of the affordable rent control housing stock in DC.
One reason for this erosion is a provision by the city which allows a housing provider to be exempt from rent control or render it ineffective. All property issued a building permit after 1975 can be exempt from rent control. Due to the city’s limited vacant spaces, many of the new buildings being constructed in the city are built on the footprint of formerly rent-controlled buildings. With little resources for tenants to object, numerous petitions (e.g. Hardship Petitions, Voluntary Agreements, Capital Improvements, etc) also allow housing providers to seek increases substantially above the rent controlled limit.
However, these are only symptoms of the lack of adequate oversight on government policies, shameless catering to large developers, and a lack of commitment to the city’s low-income residents. Ineffectual and sluggish bureaucracy coupled with the city’s acquiescence to big money result in policies and decisions which leave mid- to low-income residents with little housing security.
Despite the deficiencies rent control might have, currently, it offers some stability for thousands of DC residents with fixed or limited incomes. There are innumerable DC residents for whom rent control is the weak thread keeping them from joining the growing homeless population in the District.
Is rent control enough? No.
We need policies stronger than rent control that increase the number of secure and affordable housing units. Most of all, we need a city that prioritizes the needs of its most vulnerable residents and affirms housing as a human right, not just a market.
Julian Forth serves on the Washington Peace Center Coordinating Board