Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2007

Leggett: If council passes rent control, he’ll support it

Tenants at forum press county executive

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County Executive Isiah Leggett told a group of renters Dec. 19 that he would sign legislation to protect them against drastic rent increases if it were to ever pass through the County Council.

Leggett (D) said rent control based on residents’ cost-of-living index could be an effective way to protect residents from extraneous rent increases.

The comment came in reaction to the demands of residents calling for income-based rent control. But Leggett said he believed that type of system would not be effective to maintain affordable housing and that it would be ‘‘a very difficult proposition” to support politically.

The discussion at the Silver Spring Library included more than 50 residents from across the county, along with Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, Del. Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring and County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park.

It was organized to provide Leggett a chance to respond to a petition signed by more than 600 county tenants and submitted to him in the spring that called for a variety of changes to the county’s housing code, the principal one being a reinstatement of rent stabilization, which has not existed in Montgomery County since 1981.

The renters who attended, many on fixed incomes, said it is difficult for them to afford increases that outpace their income.

‘‘It’s a battle for all these tenants year in, year out to afford to live in these residences,” said Matt Losak, president of the Colespring Plaza Tenants Association.

Lynn Blood, a retired teacher and resident of the Willow Manor Apartments on Randolph Road, was one of several residents who addressed Leggett directly.

‘‘Since I have very limited income and it’s not increasing at a great rate, small rent increases make a big difference,” she said. ‘‘... I’m petitioning because I hope something can be done to help all of us on fixed incomes.”

Every February, the county executive sets a voluntary rental rate. But Leggett said he does not have the power to impose rent control.

‘‘The law does not provide for hardcore stabilization — that is, a cap on rent. ... There is no teeth in the law that would force us to do that,” Leggett said, leading one resident to quip: ‘‘So we want some teeth.”

When pressed further, Leggett said any decision to enact rent control is up to the County Council, and should members agree on new legislation, he would sign it into law.

Elrich, who as a city councilman in Takoma Park helped to pass rent control laws there, called rent control a ‘‘fairly effective” way to keep housing affordable.

Though he said any law would need to allow for landlords to raise rents as a result of capital improvements or higher energy costs, Elrich said the government has a right to step in when landlords increase rent simply because they can.

‘‘You guys aren’t being victimized by utility bills,” Elrich said. ‘‘... You’re being victimized by the market, and we need to do something about the market.”

Elrich reiterated Leggett’s position that any rent control should be based on the cost-of-living index and not incomes.

The cost-of-living index is a measurement of how much residents would have to spend on essential goods and services to maintain a certain standard of living. Income-based rent control would mean landlords could not raise the rent of residents at or below a certain income.

With rent control based on income, Elrich said, landlords can choose to rent to residents whose incomes exceed the rent control requirements of and can tbe charged higher rates.

Raskin said he would support several efforts at the state level to keep housing affordable, including an upcoming bill that would enable the county to temporarily deny owners the ability to evict apartment tenants in cases of condo conversions.

Leggett said that a county housing task force on housing would make recommendations in the spring. ‘‘We need to find some other way to keep those rents down,” he said.

Michael Winer, an attorney for Southern Management, which owns rental units throughout the county, said Thursday that he didn’t believe present circumstances warrant rent control.

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

‘‘I am surprised to hear that Mr. Leggett was even talking about the possibility of rent control in Montgomery County,” he said. ‘‘... The whole concept of rent control came into Montgomery County during a rental housing emergency in Montgomery County and that doesn’t appear to exist now.”

Losak said he walked away from the meeting feeling Leggett and the other representatives were ‘‘receptive” to the concerns of tenants. He called Leggett’s remarks ‘‘a significant step.”

‘‘This is a change in stance for the county executive,” Losak said. ‘‘What it means is he’s philosophically and attitudinally for it, but it is a political problem.”

rent at a glance

Average cost of rentals in Montgomery County with percent change from 2006 to 2007

Efficiency: 2006—$987; 2007—$1,076; 9 percent increase

1 Bedroom: 2006—$1,073; 2007—$1,151; 7.3 percent increase

2 Bedroom: 2006—$1,267; 2007—$1,333; 5.2 percent increase

All Units: 2006—$1,212; 2007—$1,281; 5.7 percent increase