Credit: Getty Images

When the County Council returns from its summer recess in September, members face an issue of growing importance: Should rent stabilization policies be used as a tool to help with housing affordability?

Late last month, council members decided not to vote yet on a proposed bill that would have extended the existing rental increase cap at 4.4% for six months. The 4.4% was higher than the rental increase cap of 0.4%,which was  tied to the county’s voluntary rent guidelines, and expired in mid-May.

Several supporters of the bill noted that local rent increases have risen as much as 30% or more since the cap expired and the higher rents may  displacing people from their homes. Opponents said the proposed cap would prevent local property owners from receiving revenue that would pay for critical repairs and improvements to their buildings along with the rising costs of operating their properties.

At-large Council Member Will Jawando, who led efforts to get the bill passed, said earlier this month that a new council might be more open to implementing a more permanent rent stabilization policy.

The new council, consisting of 11 members, will be sworn into office in December. If all the Democratic primary winners prevail in the general election in November, the new council would consist of six women

Jawando noted the city of Takoma Park has a law that caps annual rental increases at 7.3%, equivalent to the 12-month consumer price index in the Washington, D.C., region, a figure that changes annually. Landlords and property managers who raise rents more than that amount face a $500 fine for the first offense, and then $1,000 for repeat offenses, according to city code.

Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart is the Democratic nominee for the council’s District 4, which represents North Bethesda, Kensington, Silver Spring, and Takoma Park. Stewart said earlier this month housing affordability was one of her top priorities as mayor when she was elected in 2015.

“Looking at the conversations we have had during the primary campaign and the need for housing, particularly affordable housing in our community, actions will need to be taken by this next council,” Stewart said. “We’ll see what specifics we can do, but it’s not something we will be able to ignore.”

Andrew Friedson, unopposed in his re-election bid for council District 1, which covers Bethesda, Potomac, parts of Chevy Chase and other areas, noted Tuesday that permanent rent stabilization could cause “unintended consequences” that result in less availability of existing affordable housing. 

Friedson said those who advocate for broad-based rental increase cap policies have good intentions, but supporters must consider the potential effects of displacement, especially when it comes to younger residents trying to find a place to live. Building more housing is the most effective step in lowering rent prices, he added.

“This is what the data and the research show us … the people who are benefitting from broad-based rent control are long-time renters who have gotten really good deals,” Friedson said. “It’s then the youngest and most diverse residents who usually suffer because the people who have been here all along want to stay because of those good deals.”

Council members owe it to county residents to have the debate, Jawando said.  He said he’s open to compromise if members propose a rate higher than 4.4%, noting that Takoma Park’s 7.3% rate is “not insignificant” for many residents and families. 

Jawando and Stewart believe that having a set rate would provide some stability and predictability for renters.

“I think it should be set to some sort of consumer price index or something that is calculable,” Jawando said. “If you’re a homeowner and you’re on a 30-year mortgage, you know what your mortgage is going to be month to month.”

Sidney Katz, who is seeking a third term in the council District 3, which covers  Rockville and Gaitherburg, said Tuesday he wants to hear more from both supporters and opponents of the rent stabilization bill before deciding whether he would vote for temporary or permanent rent stabilization.

Along with renters, property owners and developers also deserve certainty on being able to raise enough revenue to pay for operating costs, capital improvements, or the cost of new projects, Katz said.

The council is scheduled to reconvene Sept. 13.