Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More talk than action on rent control

Bills proposed to cut housing costs; critics say rely on market

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It’s an idea that’s been floated by tenant organizers and proposed by one County Council member, but rent control or rent stabilization in Montgomery County lacks universal support, and its proponents say it has been difficult to rally more tenants to the cause.

‘‘To me, the tenants are apathetic and they just don’t want to rock the boat,” said Betty Willis, a housing activist and rent control proponent who spoke at a sparsely attended April 12 housing forum in Takoma Park. ‘‘Some tenants have just moved away” because their rents are too high rather than protest, she explained.

Earlier this year, County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park began pitching his proposal for a countywide law that would prevent landlords from drastically increasing rents. The only jurisdiction in the county that has such legislation is Takoma Park, whose code Elrich helped devise as a city councilman there. Elrich has not introduced his measure as a county bill.

Earlier this month, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) proposed a plan to make housing more affordable by encouraging the rehabilitation and construction of inexpensive rental units and providing tax incentives to homebuyers.

But Elrich and others who are concerned about a lack of affordable housing for low-income residents say that plan won’t be enough.

‘‘Montgomery County’s affordable housing policies are an absolute joke,” Elrich said at the April 12 forum. ‘‘The county issues meaningless guidelines and the landlords do what they want.”

Elrich’s proposal, which is almost identical to the Takoma Park law, would tie rent increases to the consumer price index, which measures inflation, and allow landlords to increase rent in order to make improvements.

Critics of rent control, however, say that government should let the market determine housing prices. Such laws, they say, could unfairly limit the profit landlords can make and stifle development.

Rent control exists in different forms in almost 200 American cities, most with large tenant populations, according to Peter Dreier, a professor of public policy and politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the former housing director for the city of Boston, which has rent control.

Dreier said cities with rent control, most of which are in California and New Jersey, typically pass laws in reaction to rising rents.

‘‘It doesn’t stop landlords from making a good profit,” he said, ‘‘but it does stop them from rent gouging.”

All jurisdictions with rent control, Dreier said, allow landlords to increase rents if maintenance costs and taxes go up.

Montgomery County instituted rent control amid a rental housing emergency in 1973 after federally imposed national rent control ended, but the county’s measures ended in 1981.

‘‘The whole time [the measures] were up, there was no new housing construction and the housing shortage had gotten much worse,” said David Hillman, CEO of Southern Management, which owns several rental properties throughout the county and is involved in litigation against Takoma Park for ‘‘flaws in their rent control ordinance,” he said.

Hillman said rent control would cost the county ‘‘a huge amount of money in real estate tax” and said he thinks Elrich’s proposal has little chance.

But Elrich points to Takoma Park, where he says there are no slums and buildings are regularly inspected, as evidence that rent control works.

Elrich said his countywide proposal has received little attention.

‘‘I keep threatening to introduce it as a bill,” Elrich said. ‘‘... I really want people to talk about it before it gets to bill stage.”

Council President Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said Tuesday he doubts the proposal, which he does not support, could pass through the council.

‘‘I sure hope not,” he said. ‘‘Personally, I think that rent control, and quite honestly that just about any price control, is just not something that works. I think we live in a free market economy and I think to artificially impose a price on a market, historically, it’s problematic.”

Knapp said he is waiting for Leggett to make his final decisions about the task force recommendations.

‘‘We’ve talked a lot about housing, and we haven’t done a lot about housing,” he said. ‘‘We need a better strategy.”

Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said Monday that measures are needed to preserve affordable housing, but she wasn’t sure rent control was the first or best option. She also said it might be hard to find support.

‘‘It’s one thing to do it in Takoma Park, where clearly it’s worked, but to do it countywide is another thing,” she said, explaining that some parts of the county do not have high numbers of renters.

Ervin said she hasn’t seriously looked at Elrich’s proposal but said she didn’t consider rent control an ‘‘extreme” option.

As the event where Elrich spoke April 12 demonstrated, support for such laws is hard to rally. Billed as the first housing forum from a tenant perspective, the event at Takoma Park Middle School attracted about 30 attendees. Almost everyone who came was an organizer or an official invited to speak.

Nearly half of the residents in Takoma Park and Silver Spring are renters. County data included in Leggett’s proposal showed that about 35,000 rental units in the county are no longer considered affordable because of rising prices and stagnant wages.

LaVirda Douglas said at the forum that she had to leave her apartment in Silver Spring last year after her monthly rent was raised from $983 to $1,075. She moved to Beltsville in Prince George’s County, where she said the rent is cheaper.

‘‘If I stayed [in Silver Spring], I couldn’t function,” she said.

Felicia Eberling, vice president of the tenants association at Cole Spring Plaza in Silver Spring, said many tenants have complaints about rent increases, but are reluctant to speak out and can’t take time from work to attend meetings.

‘‘The challenge is to get renters to feel that it’s worth coming out of the woodwork,” she said.

Eberling was one of about 50 residents who attended a December 2007 meeting organized by tenants associations to present Leggett with a petition asking for rent control. She said people were willing to come that time because the county executive attended.

Dreier said most movements to implement rent control receive attention only after a push from tenants.

‘‘The tenants are kind of the sleeping giant in politics,” Dreier said. ‘‘They’re usually not well organized, but when they do get organized, they’re pretty fierce.”

Takoma Park City Councilman Terry Seamens (Ward 4), who spoke at the forum and is a landlord, said nothing will change for tenants unless they speak out by sending e-mails and writing letters. ‘‘If you want to be on the winning side, you have to be organized,” he said.