Politicians, particularly in large cities, like to claim the mantle of “champion of the poor.” Realistically, they wouldn’t have been elected in the first place if not for their promises to “help” the underprivileged. But are these assurances improving people’s lives or are they just giving politicians a way to say they are helping when they aren’t? As Ronald Reagan famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
To “help” homeless and low-income residents, Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser uses a program known as Rapid Rehousing — which gives people vouchers to pay their rent for up to 18 months. However, when the vouchers expire, the people “helped” are in no better position than they were before. Think about it – if you’d gone more than a year without paying rent, how prepared would you be to pay when your voucher expires? Accountability atrophies like any muscle does when not exercised. There are also no consequences to tenants who don’t pay rent, because they know the city has a legal obligation to rehouse them, should they ever be evicted.
DC law also makes it timely and expensive for landlords to get rid of bad renters, or tenants who cannot pay their rent after their vouchers are exhausted. It can take more than 6 months and thousands of dollars in legal fees to evict a tenant who hasn’t paid any rent.
We also have to acknowledge that some voucher recipients are not ideal tenants, due to issues like addiction, mental illness or the neglect of upkeep that goes along with anything given compared to earned. These tenants can diminish living conditions for everyone in the entire building. For examples: flushing diapers down a toilet or destroying door locks. When you combine this destructiveness with multiple tenants not paying rent, it is easy to understand why landlords are reluctant or financially unable to spend tens of thousands of dollars on building maintenance.
Keep in mind that these laws protecting tenants, who don’t pay rent, can hurt responsible tenants who do pay rent, by putting landlords in an untenable position of being forced to lose money on these buildings in order to provide constant maintenance.
Another government-mandated wrench in the gears of the Washington, DC, real estate market is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. Known as TOPA, it gives renters the legal right to purchase the property they’re renting should the owner of the property decide to sell. Essentially, it is a right of first refusal for tenants.
Now, renters, with the help of opportunistic lawyers, are selling their TOPA “rights” to developers, who can stop private sales, according to NBC in Washington, in order to extort money from property owners. The law is so poorly written, NBC “found out your name doesn’t even have to be on the lease to get paid, because the district’s TOPA law doesn’t define what a ‘tenant’ is.”
It turns out TOPA rights are even retroactive. NBC reports “some title insurance companies won’t let you close without a TOPA waiver from every tenant who’s lived in the building going back a whole year just in case a TOPA chaser finds them.” Further, NBC reported that live-in health workers who resided in a unit for a few weeks or a summer intern can secure TOPA. According to the news segment: “Even a squatter can stop a sale and demand payment for TOPA rights.” You may ask yourself how this is sane or legal, but it’s what you get when politicians distort the free market.
Ironically, TOPA rights created by the DC government to “help” tenants are actually hurting renters. This because TOPA rights are forcing up the cost of owning property, which, in turn, drives up rent in the District of Colombia.
Mayor Bowser campaigned on making DC a more humane place for people lacking adequate shelter. Her Rapid Rehousing program is helping some families stay off the streets, but this “help” is also attracting homeless people to DC from across the region. Now, the city is on the hook to take care of them, to the tune of around $80,000 a night to lodge them in hotels and other emergency housing.
Perhaps even more alarming — but not surprising — the District has so badly managed its housing programs for the poor, the city has had to return millions of dollars in housing subsidies to the federal government. In fact, DC leads the nation in federal dollars returned for, effectively, government incompetence.
I don’t pretend have the answers to resolve Washington’s homeless problem. But I do know that politicians constantly blaming landlords – for high rents and poorly maintained low-income housing units – will fail because it absolves the politicians from their own failures. Instead of demonizing and issuing further mandates to landlords, DC’s Mayor, Attorney General and City Council might want to consider working more closely with property owners to ensure that they can both profit from their investment and provide safe living conditions for tenants. Until then, government “help” will only make matters worse for both landlords and renters in DC and everywhere else.