D.C. Council Candidates Talk about Housing

James Wright | 9/19/2012, 12:49 p.m.

Candidates for D.C. Council chairman and member positions discussed the need to maintain rent control and provide more affordable housing during a forum sponsored by the city's most prominent tenant association.

The D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition or TENAC, a non-profit, public service organization that advocates on behalf of tenants in the District, held a political forum on Wednesday, September 12 at the Charles Sumner School in Northwest to query candidates on their views regarding tenant issues. The District's rent control law, which is considered to be one of the strongest in the country in protecting tenants from being evicted by their landlords unfairly, is an ongoing matter of discussion in the city.

"Rent control continues to be the center of the agenda," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "We need to make sure that it can be renewed without any interference from a Republican-controlled Congress."

Fifty-five percent of D.C. residents are renters, according to a 2011 study released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Northwest.

NeighborhoodInfo DC, a Website that maintains statistics on the District, reports that 24 percent of residents who live in Ward 8 in Southeast own their homes as opposed to 57 percent in Ward 3 in Northwest, the wealthiest ward in the city.

In essence, the rent control law prohibits landlords from raising the rents on tenants without adequate notice and without just cause. Tenants have legal remedies under the law and cannot be evicted while an increase is being disputed.

Evans, 58, said that the rent control law is safe but is working with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) to ensure that the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives do not interfere with it.

Affordable housing is always a major issue during the campaign season and Venus Little, of Northwest, asked candidates to define "affordable housing." She received various answers.

"To me, affordable housing means mixed-income developments," said D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7). "Other than that, there are programs that suit everyone's needs and income levels."

Alexander, 50, said that she's pro-tenant, voicing support for the Office of the Tenant Advocate and refining the "Tenant Bill of Rights."

D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) told Little and other audience members who attended the forum that the reason rents are so high in the District is because of the "AMI" or the "area median income."

"We in the District are surrounded by some of the wealthiest counties in the country," said Orange, 55. "When prices for housing are determined, they use the AMI and that skews the prices for District residences. We have to find a way to get around the AMI."

Interim D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said that he supports the maintenance of the Housing Production Trust Fund, which is designed to help District residents who meet their income levels secure housing.

"The problem is that the mayors in the past have raided the fund to pay for other city projects and that is wrong," said Mendelson, 59. "I will work to get the funding restored."

However, D.C. Council member Michael Brown (I-At Large) viewed the affordable housing issue in a broader context.

"We have 1,100 new residents moving into the city each month," said Brown, 47. "I don't think that gentrification is a bad thing, as long as you don't displace people. Housing should be made for those new residents but we need to make sure that the folks who have been here a long time [are] not kicked out."

Brown said that housing should be affordable for "police officer, firefighters and teachers." He noted that no one in the city should pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Little, 45, said she was somewhat satisfied with the responses to her question.

"Some of the politicians answered my question," she said. "Some deviated from it but I am happy with what I heard."