The residents of the Willard apartments in Chevy Chase have faced a pair of five percent rent increases since last fall, and they are unhappy Montgomery County’s voluntary guideline for a 2.8 percent rent increase last year seemed to go unnoticed.
A few dozen Willard residents made up a group of about 150 renters who met Monday night in Bethesda as part of the emerging Montgomery County Renters Alliance. They heard from and questioned state and local leaders on how to establish some form of rent stabilization and other measures to protect renters.
They heard back that despite figures showing renters make up 30 percent of the county’s population, politicians in Annapolis and Rockville rarely hear from organizations arguing on their behalf.
“All of the good sentiment in the world isn’t going to mean anything unless we’re organized on a daily basis. Landlords, god bless them, have lobbyists that are in Annapolis every single day of the 90-day session,” said State Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Silver Spring-Takoma Park). “There are issues that affect apartment owners every single day there and there are issues that affect the tenants every single day there but we don’t have an organized lobbying presence of the tenants.”
Raskin, along with East County Delegates Sheila Hixson and Tom Hucker and at-large County Councilman Marc Elrich, explained how their rent stabilization legislation has floundered despite what should be a powerful group of constituents.
“We would see a sea change in Rockville and a sea change in Annapolis if 30 percent of the votes that are delivered from Montgomery County are from tenants,” Hucker said. “Unfortunately, there’s a sense out there from elected officials that tenants don’t vote. We don’t hear from tenants.”
Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (D), a Bethesda resident widely rumored to be thinking about a 2014 run at governor, was also at the meeting.
“I was unaware that this group even existed until very recently,” Gansler said. “So the fact that renters are aligning, that’s a place to start.”
Elrich, who as a member of Takoma Park’s City Council helped institute rent control measures, said he received no support for a similar measure he proposed a few years ago at the county level. Takoma Park’s rent stabilization limits rent increases to the rate of inflation.
“I did not and have not yet had a single council member come to my door and even say, ‘Can we talk about this?’ I was told it’s dead on arrival,” Elrich said. He said he will come back with a modified proposal that would require building owners to submit a request for why they need to increase rents by more than 150 percent of the inflation rate.
David Cohen, the chair of the tenants association at the Willard, said most of the building’s tenants are seniors who want to live there long-term because moving is difficult. He said landlords too often believe renters will easily relocate if they are unhappy with rent increases.
According to a 2007-2011 Census survey released last week, 30 percent (or 7,330) of occupied households in Bethesda are rented, reflecting the county-wide rate. In North Bethesda, 41.4 percent (or 7,800) of occupied households are rented. More than 60 percent of renters in both areas pay more than $1,500 a month.
“Tenants experience, in my mind, grave instability. Why you would treat one group of the population differently than another group of the population simply because you don’t have the means to buy property, that strikes me as somewhat unjust,” Elrich said. “Communities that stay together and stay together for the long term are more stable.”
The nonprofit Montgomery County Renters Alliance, which was established in 2011 as a result of the county’s Tenants Work Group Report, is just getting started said executive director Matt Losak.
But to further illustrate the challenges renters face in making political progress, Elrich brought up another factor.
Landlords and developers, he said, are lobbying County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to cut funding to the group.