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Groups Lobby To Keep Rental Housing Panel

Tenants rights organizations appear to have successfully lobbied to save the agency which presides over landlord-tenant disputes under the District’s rent control law.

The D.C. City Council is scheduled to vote on budget legislation Tuesday which initially contained language abolishing the Rental Housing Commission.

Last week, the council elected to strike that language and restore the commission’s budget of $227,000, which Mayor Anthony Williams (D) had eliminated in his fiscal 2004 budget as part of an effort to close funding gaps for the coming fiscal year.

In recent weeks, nearly a dozen tenants’ rights organizations have lobbied the 13-member council in an attempt to maintain the commission, which operates under the Rental Housing Act of 1985.

“We were outraged,” said Lester Cussey, co-founder of the D.C. Coalition for Housing Justice. “We view an attack on the commission as an attack on rent control.”

The commission serves as an arbitrator for tenant-landlord disputes concerning rents charged and rent ceilings, and also publishes the annual adjustment for rental units which operate under the housing act, according to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Web site.

“We don’t view the commission as necessarily favorable to the tenants, we see it as a neutral body,” said Kenneth Rothschild, a member of both the Tenants’ Task Force for Rent Control and the D.C. Coalition for Rent Control.

If the commission is abolished, tenants or landlords would have to file complaints in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Tenants groups assert that the change in venue would create additional difficulties for many renters, citing concerns such as the need for attorneys, when tenants are currently able to represent themselves in hearings held by the commission. “It’s much more complex,” Rothschild said.

The Tenant Action Network estimates there are more than 100,000 rental units in the District which qualify for rent control.

“There’s a total erosion of low and moderate income housing in this city. We’re fighting for the bits and scraps that are still left,” Rothschild said.

City Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) said the commission is designed to make the enforcement of rent control laws as accessible as possible for renters.

He added that many of the disputes “are “not so substantial that they lend themselves to obvious courtroom litigation.”

While Mendelson said the Apartment and Office Building Association has lobbied in favor of dismantling the rental commission, he expects it will be approved by the council.

A spokesman for AOBA did not return a call seeking comment.

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for the mayor, said the commission is only one of dozens of items being debated in the 2004 budget.

“This is not the first time someone has proposed to eliminate the Rental Housing Commission, it has come up before and with the full support of the chairman of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs [Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6)],” Bullock said. “It’s her feeling and the mayor’s feeling that there is really no need for the commission. The functions of this commission should be transferred to DCRA staff and to the Superior Court, where things more move more quickly.”

Tenant organizations will try to use their momentum to encourage the council to strengthen rent control laws. Betty Sellers, a TAN member, said: “We truly hope the city council preserving the Rental Housing Commission is just the first step in fixing what’s wrong with the rent control law, closing loopholes.”

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