The Washington Lawyers’ Committee and ONE DC Partner to Protect Tenants

By Brook Hill, Fair Housing Paralegal, Washington Lawyers’ Committee

DC is the most unaffordable housing market in the country, a problem that is only expected to get worse. Since 2000, thousands of affordable units have been lost in DC as subsidies end for properties that have been subsidized for decades. The Fair Housing Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee is committed to helping protect the rights of those tenants who live in housing that is transitioning from being subsidized to market-rate and to ensuring that D.C. residents aren’t discriminated against based on their receipt of housing vouchers when they search for housing.

Project-Based Section 8 contracts and other government housing programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (“LIHTC”) are coming to an end in dozens of properties throughout the city because those subsidies were only granted for a limited period of time. This trend began around 2000 and is continuing across the city, especially in the “hottest” areas of DC, such as the Shaw neighborhood, as owners seek to capitalize on the now-high rents by transitioning their affordable buildings to market rate. The impact of this practice is felt most by African Americans, often elderly or families with children, who make up the majority of tenants in DC’s subsidized properties.

How is this happening? When a building owner opts-out of the Project-Based Section 8 program, the complex’s current tenants receive “enhanced vouchers” that are intended to enable them to remain in their homes by subsidizing their units so that the owner receives approximately the same rent as the market rate he can charge to non-subsidized tenants. When an owner ends its LIHTC, there are far fewer protections.

Yet, while owners are legally allowed to transition from subsidies to market rent, federal and DC law prohibit owners from engaging in discrimination on the basis of race, familial status, source of income, and a number of other protected characteristics. These laws further prohibit landlords and property managers from interfering in their tenants’ right to organize and, in some circumstances, they allow for tenants to purchase their properties from their landlords. However, not all landlords and property managers follow the rules. Tenants who get “enhanced vouchers” that allow them to remain in properties that are transitioning to market rate are often treated differently by management than the market rate tenants. Other tenants chose to move out and use their vouchers elsewhere, but encounter illegal discrimination at the hands of landlords who don’t want to rent to voucher holders.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee has a strong partnership with ONE DC, a community organizing group that has been working with tenants at subsidized properties as the properties transition from subsidized to market rate, or as they are being sold with the expectation of redevelopment. In conjunction with ONE DC, we are looking forward to helping tenants stay in their homes – as they have a right to do – and preserving affordable housing across the District.

If your building in the District is transitioning from subsidized to market rate, we want to hear about your experiences. Contact me at Brook_Hill@washlaw.org or at (202) 319-1000.

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