D.C. tenants may be relieved of the increasingly frequent practice of tenant exploitation thanks to the Rent Control Protection Amendment Act of 2008.

The D.C. Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs held a hearing last week regarding the bill, which is subject to a committee vote before it can be introduced in the general council.

Initially introduced by D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), the bill seeks to amend the Rental Housing Act of 1985, which currently governs rent-controlled apartments in the District to protect renters from increasing costs. One of the provisions under the law allows tenants and renters to negotiate voluntary agreements for slight rent increases for the purposes of renovating buildings or for fixing code violations or hazardous conditions which require larger capital. In order for a landlord to increase rent, 70 percent of the tenants in the building complex must agree to the new surcharge arrangement.

“The statute, as it is written right now, is very vague in its requirements. It has allowed landlords to really exploit the process, and use the voluntary agreement provision as a wedge between tenants,” Joel Cohn, legislative director for the Office of the Tenant Advocate. “This has become a vehicle to get around the rent control law. They are reestablishing rent ceilings.”

“The purpose of the legislation is that the regulations of the voluntary agreement provision will be followed whenever there is this sort of an agreement, not just when there happens to be the right person on the job. The legislation is set to address statutory flaws and failings,” Cohn said.

The new bill seeks to protect tenants by requiring a rent increase to be financially justified, and not just an excuse to increase the rent. The legislation will also prohibit a voluntary agreement rent increase to apply to vacant units when 30 percent of the units are empty. The rent increase will only apply to the current tenants in place at the time of the agreement.

“The issue that we’re looking at in the bill is to make sure that this process is free of coercion that would skew a vote on increasing the rent,” Drew Hubbard, clerk for the Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs, said. “It would also clarify that reconfiguration or alteration of a renter unit is not a valid claim for exemption from rent control.”

According to the Hubbard, those who testified at the hearing last week were mostly from tenant groups and all unanimously testified in support of the bill. The mayor’s office did not send a representative to testify.

“Some of the sentiment right now is that there is definitely concern in the area, but it might be a little heavy-handed in the way that the bill is written. We may redefine how coercion is considered,” Hubbard said.

In the District, 65 percent of rental units are under rent control regulation. If the bill is passed, the legislation will affect those Georgetown students who choose to live in off-campus apartment complexes.

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