Rent Freeze Fall Out Pt. 1 & 2

Welcome to Problem Tenant’s in-depth breakdown of Bill-1820E “COVID-19 Renter Relief Act” sponsored by Commonwealth and the good people at Blackstone Real Estate Investments. I hope you enjoy the show.

My intention behind these two articles will be to, as best I can, describe the process and passage of Bill 18-20E from the point of view of a renter. Therefore, while I’ll try to be as objective and impartial as possible, I won’t pass up editorializing or ruminating on what is motivating certain actions or viewpoints (doing my best to base these comments on actual actions or words by the players in the game).

The first part of this analysis will cover the introduction of Bill 18-20E, the initial amendments proposed to the bill, and public testimony. This is essential background on the bill.

A second part to be released next week will focus on the final debate and vote for the bill. The reason why is while the bill’s introduction and amendments are lengthy, they are also fairly straightforward. The final debate, however, featured councilmembers bloviating about “both sides” of the landlord/tenant equation, and the “deep uncertainty for property owners,” as well as histrionics about how “rent gouging in Montgomery County ends today.” I want to capture all that so you can experience both the rhetoric of the Council when it comes to renters and the actual legislation they pass.

So without further ado…

Bill Introduction

 (Problem Tenant editorializing) When the delegates compete between themselves on who can appear to help renters the most without actually supporting the legislation at hand

At-Large Councilmember Will Jawando introduced expedited Bill 18-20E – Landlord-Tenant Relations – Rent Stabilization During Emergencies (hereinafter, Bill 18-20E) during the April 14, 2020 County Council session. CM Jawando’s intention for the bill was to protect vulnerable residents by stopping rent increases during and 30 days after the current catastrophic health emergency. The bill would sunset 121 days after the end of the state of emergency.

“When I asked [the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs] about how many calls they are getting about this problem they said they are hearing about this problem everyday,” Jawando said during his opening remarks. He cited multiple properties where residents had reached out to him or the Montgomery County Renters Alliance about rent increases that they would not be able to pay because of the impact of COVID-19.

Jawando emphasized the bill wasn’t intended as a long-lasting rent freeze or rent control and would be a temporary measure. Nevertheless, as we’ll see this bill provided an opportunity for nearly every councilmember to either reject the proposal of rent control or to ruminate vaguely about strengthening the County’s voluntary rent control guidelines.

Speaking directly after Jawando’s introduction was bill co-sponsor and District 4 Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who confirmed it was her suggestion to limit the bill’s definition of “state of emergency” to specifically the state of emergency announced by Governor Hogan related to COVID-19. It was also her suggestion to include a sunset period in the bill and change the title to omit any reference to rent stabilization.

According to Navarro, these changes came after she had spoken with Apartment and Office Building Association lobbyist Nicola Whitman. Without weighing the merit of these amendments, I’ll note AOBA specifically included all these amendments in their testimony for Bill 18-20E.

District 2 Councilmember Craig Rice spoke in support of the legislation after Navarro. He repeated that this is emergency, temporary, legislation to support the most vulnerable. He criticized the media for making out the legislation to be a contest between County Council and landlords. Rather, according to Rice, the legislation targeted bad actors in the landlord community.

As usual when it comes to issues related to renters’ rights and safety, District 1 Councilmember Andrew Friedson spoke first in tepid opposition to Bill 18-20E. We’ll see later how Friedson cover his objections with language about the need to “narrow” or “target” the legislation to “those in most need.”

Friedson started by noting appreciation that the bill’s scope was confined to the COVID-19 emergency (this will be a common theme throughout the Bill 18-20E debate) and thanked the “overwhelming majority” of property owners in Montgomery County who were acting responsibly as opposed to a few, “bad actors.”

From there, Friedson immediately pivoted to the “bad actors” in the tenant community, who supposedly take advantage of eviction moratoriums to pay no rent whatsoever. His proposed solution was to increase rental assistance.

Let me interject; I don’t oppose the notion that we need more rental assistance. The County’s comprehensive programs are woefully inadequate even outside times of crisis. But just like with the amendments introduced by Nancy Navarro, rental assistance is a request by AOBA for a reason. Increased rental assistance would flow directly from the County, through a struggling tenant’s bank account, into their landlord’s hands. Rental assistance keeps the wheels of the housing market turning but does nothing to touch the underlying problem: the enormous rent burden many Montgomery County renters experience. 

Back to Friedson.

He barely talked about the content of Bill 18-20E and instead outlined his “plan” for renters during the crisis: tax abatements, license fee and other regulatory changes to allow property owners the flexibility to work with tenants like they (allegedly) are doing already. Friedson closed by stating he wants to see bill 18-20E focus on those who most needed help and that he and Councilmember Glass were working on an amendment to Bill 18-20E. The “Friedson/Glass Amendment” will be discussed more below and will later play a crucial role in gutting Bill 18-20E during the final debate.

Another interjection. Can someone please confiscate Friedson’s copy of “Farnsworth’s Rhetoric?” If I have to listen to another contrived quote or rhetorical flourish Friedson uses to obscure his intentions I may rip my ears off. Examples include, “use the scalpel not the hatchet,” “use carrots and not just sticks,” “the power of our example and not just the example of our power.” GTFO of here dude, these are all excuses to do nothing. 

District 3 Councilmember Sydney Katz supported the bill but wanted to see it amended to include only existing tenants and note new leases. This amendment made it to the final version of the bill.

In other words, if you lost your home before the eviction moratorium, a landlord can demand any rent from you they want.

District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker supported relieving renters but shared Navarro’s concern that the bill was too broad and should be focused on “anti-gouging.” He was the first Councilmember to raise the concern about how the bill will affect County revenue.

At-Large Councilmember Hans Reimer was ok with enacting a temporary freeze for rents but opposed longer-term rent cap measures. He advised property owners and tenants to come to individual agreements on rent payments.

You can read what District 20 Delegate and renter champion Jheanelle Wilkins thinks of this naive approach here.

At-Large Councilmember Evan Glass claimed he and Friedson’s amendment would “steamline” Bill 18-20E to the people impacted by COVID-19 and rent payments. Glass, like Friedson, swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the AOBA line that landlords were voluntarily suspending rents in their buildings.

A quick note on this AOBA comment about their members suspending rents. We have only AOBA’s word on this. AOBA is a lobbying organization for their members. There is nothing, to my knowledge, that grants AOBA authority to demand their members take any action related to COVID-19 or any emergency. Additionally, I would think liberals would have learned during the debate on cigarettes that you can’t just take an industry lobbyist’s talking points at face value. For Councilmembers like Andrew Friedson and Evan Glass to regurgitate without question lobbyist talking points shows a disappointing lack of due-diligence. 

Councilmember Glass used his remaining time to advertise his upcoming initiative to add $2 million to renter assistance which, as mentioned above, is a transfer of money from County bank accounts to landlord bank accounts.

Councilmember Jawando closed the discussion on Bill 18-20E by pointing out a few things to his fellow councilmembers:

  • Montgomery County is a great county but it is not great for everyone. We have to be able to discuss how some people are truly struggling while acknowledging all our great attributes.
  • The bill is already narrowly tailored to apply for a short period after which the legislation will sunset and only for lease renewals.
  • Washington D.C., and sectors of the Los Angeles and Glendale, CA housing market have had rents frozen. MoCo wouldn’t be the only jurisdiction to do this.

Pop Quiz Time: Do you know how many County Councilmembers are on the Montgomery County Council?

That’s right, there are NINE members of the County Council. So why did we only include the comments of eight councilmembers you ask? Simple!

At-Large Councilmember Gabe Albornoz was on the conference call but didn’t say anything at all during the bill’s introduction. It is possible Mr. Albornoz was asleep on the livestream with his eyes open or had an effective yet mute body-double as a stand-in. Whatever the reason, Mr. Albornoz has earned himself an “F” as in “Fucking consistently out of the loop on renter issues or needs.” Congratulations, Councilmember Albornoz!

Amendments

Amendments were formally added to the bill after introduction. With the help of a team of scientific experts, I broke them down into two categories:

  1. Cosmetic changes like the bill’s name, who is covered, and the bill’s application period
  2. Changes to what the bill does to protect rents during COVID-19

The cosmetic changes are touched on above but are important to the overall impact of the bill. They restrict the bill to being in effect only for the COVID-19 crisis (as opposed to any declared state of emergency), establish a sunset period for the bill’s effect to end, apply the bill only to lease renewals, and strike any reference to “rent stabilization” from the title.

As already noted, AOBA and the local Chambers of Commerce fought for these amendments and the Council and Executive unanimously supported these changes.

There is something for advocates of long-term rent caps to think about here, that the Council and Executive couldn’t even manage keep the term “rent stabilization” in the name or intention of the bill.

The changes to what the bill does for renters/landlords come down to three amendments. A councilmember introduced a fourth amendment on the final day of debate but we will discuss that amendment later.

The three main amendments are listed below as matter-of-factly as I can.

  1. The Friedson/Glass Amendment

District 1 Councilmember Andrew Friedson partnered with At-Large Councilmember Evan Glass to amend the bill to allow an increase up to the level of the County’s Voluntary Rent Increase Guidelines. Just like the name implies, these aren’t mandatory increase rates but are suggested rates issued by the County based on the Consumer Price Index. This year’s suggested increase is 2.6%.

  1. The Friedson Amendment

Councilmember Andrew Friedson also requested an additional amendment to allow the Department of Housing and Community Affairs to allow increases of up to 5% above the current rent if DHCA found the increase “justifiable by financial hardship or increased cost to the landlord.”

Additionally, the Friedson Amendment would also permit landlords to issue a one-time fee to recoup increased operational costs if they enter into agreements with DHCA about future rent increases.

  1. The Jawando Amendment

Bill sponsor Will Jawando proposed an amendment to prohibit late fees for late or nonpayment of rent during and for thirty days after the expiration of the emergency.

Public Testimony

Now that you know the different amendments proposed for Bill 18-20E, going through the April 21, 2020 public hearing will be a breeze.

The Department of Housing and Community affairs, on behalf of County Executive Elrich, testified in support of the bill and the cosmetic changes. The DHCA/County Executive opposed the Friedson/Glass and Friedson amendments as inconsistent with the bill’s intention. The DHCA also pointed out it would be difficult to determine and evaluate what is or isn’t a justifiable rent increase because there were no standards to follow.

The Montgomery County Community Action Board, an advocacy organization for the poor and working poor, supported the bill. They noted that even before the COVID-19 crisis, renters in Montgomery County face extreme rent burdens on their household budget. The rent burden is experienced disproportionately by race, with African American and Latinx communities seeing rent burdens as high as 50-60% of their income.

Montgomery County Jews United for Justice testified in support, saying the Jewish religion emphasized the rights of tenants just as much as the rights of landlords. The social justice organization opposed the Friedson/Glass and Friedson amendments that would allow rent increases.

The Montgomery County Renters Alliance supported the bill but opposed the Friedson/Glass and Friedson amendments that would allow rent increases. They view the bill as a public health matter and not about rent control; the bill keeps people in their homes when doing so directly relates to public health. They also emphasized that, contrary to the statements of AOBA and other landlord lobbyists, there are renters contacting their organization about rent increases happening during the COVID-19 crisis.

Individual resident Hyun Martin testified in favor of the bill and provided a numerical breakdown of the number of rental units in the county. Martin’s family has enough afford their rent, despite financial hardship due to COVID-19, but recognized many families were not so lucky. She wanted all families to be able to make it in Montgomery County.

The Montgomery Housing Alliance, an affordable housing coalition supported the bill and also requested additional rental housing assistance funds. The organization requested an exemption for rental units covered by income-determined rental assistance contacts (eg: HUD section 8 tenants). This was not entered into the bill that I know of. 

Nicola Whiteman testified on behalf of the Apartment and Office Building Association. She reported results from 74 Montgomery County landlords who responded to an AOBA member survey. AOBA supported the Friedson/Glass and Friedson amendments that would allow rent increases and especially emphasized their desire for DHCA to reach out to small housing providers regarding the impacts of Bill 18-20E.

I found no numbers on the total number of AOBA members but Councilmember Glass asserted during Bill 18-20E’s introduction that over 70% of county property owners are part of AOBA. I also don’t know the total number of property manager companies in the county but I recall real property database information retrieved from the state included thousands of landlord companies operating in the county. So, AOBA reporting the favorable responses of 74 of them doesn’t impress me, personally. 

Individual Amarillis Castellon-Vargas, a Silver Spring resident for over five years, testified she received a rent increase in April notifying her that the landlord intended to raise her rent from $1,581 to $1,641. She said she cannot continue to live in Silver Spring because the rent increases every year while the family’s wages remain the same. She rightly notified her landlord her family would be moving, only for the landlord to demand a $500 payment to leave the apartment. Castellon-Vargas supported Bill 18-20E and urged more action by the Council on holding landlords accountable.

Individual and local small business owner Stephen Melkisthian supported Bill 18-20E as a way for renters to find affordable housing in an expensive housing market. He noted many renters are the same people going to work in the service sector, health and safety sector, transportation networks and more during this crisis.

Individual Mayra Alvarado testified in support of Bill 18-20E because it would support her friends and family. Alvarado currently lives in a single-family rental home but has formerly lived in larger apartment complexes where she encountered many problems with Montgomery County Landlords.

As you can see, public testimony overwhelmingly supported Bill 18-20E as it was introduced, with a few cosmetic changes.

It was the landlord lobby who wanted to scrub any mention of “rent stabilization” or any effective rent freeze from the legislation.

As we will see in part 2 the landlord lobby got what they asked for. The ongoing question to ask renters and renter advocates is, why?

PART 2

No silly introduction this week, just diving straight into the blood and gore of the final debate on limiting rent increases during a state of emergency.

At-large Councilmember Will Jawando kicked-off the hearing by recapping his original intention behind Bill 18-20E: implement a temporary emergency rent freeze during, and for a time after, the current state of emergency to protect vulnerable renters. District 2 Councilmember Craig Rice and District 5 Councilmember Nancy Navarro repeated their support for Bill 18-20E as-introduced (with the cosmetic amendments discussed in part 1).

At-large Councilmember Hans Riemer and District 1 Councilmember Andrew Friedson were the first to raise objections. Both shared the concern that this legislation only serves “one side of the equation” and that the state of emergency could, apparently, go on indefinitely. Friedson claimed the bill was a “macro solution to a micro problem,” ie: there are presumably renters who canafford to pay rent increases and therefore, should.

These are most of the root objections to Bill 18-20E; the objections that pose the most risk to the bill’s original intent. At-Large Councilmember Glass introduces a red-herring argument later that only succeeds in tripping himself up. One more major objection will come much later in the debate in what is one of the most spectacular “heel turns” in recent Montgomery County politics…

For now, before substantive debate on the individual amendments, Councilmember Jawando went to bat for renters in laying out initial arguments against Friedson-Riemer’s objections.

The rent increases Friedson, Riemer, and Glass are supporting may be marginal for property owners and a hypothetical segment of affluent renters but the consequences for vulnerable renter will be devastating. Jawando acknowledged the bill serves the “tenant side” of the rental equation but that he’d be on the front lines advocating for assistance from higher levels of government for property owners – the focus now is to alleviate concerns about rent increases.

Jawando pointed out over 30% of the total renters in Montgomery County are considered “rent burdened” (paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent). Jawando further broke down the racial disparity in Montgomery County’s rent burdened population, an Office of Legislative Oversight’s report on racial disparities showed 54 percent of Black and 62 percent of Latinx residents were before the COVID-19 crisis. Rent burdened families stood to fall even further into arrears if their rent increased when many are also out of work or working reduced hours.

Regarding pegging the freeze for the duration of the state of emergency, Jawando saw it as only right to assist vulnerable tenants when housing was integral to a public health crisis. Councilmember Craig Rice also chimed in that Councilmember Riemer was using a false equivocation when he claimed the state of emergency could go on for years, or, “until a vaccine is found.” There has never been a multi-year state of emergency, according to Rice, and conflating the length of the state of emergency with the time it takes to find a vaccine was mistaken.

Finally, Jawando and Rice rebutted the argument that this bill is too broad. Jawando was adamant that COVID-19 has opened a grey area in the middle-class; families who were formerly safe paying higher rents were now vulnerable because one parent lost their job. Rice offered his family as a real-life example: as a new homeowner his family was comfortable paying their mortgage but since his wife lost her job due to COVID-19, they were vulnerable. Mortgage relief exists for Councilmember Rice, but not for the thousands of renters who found themselves in the same position due to COVID-19. It is wrong, according to bill co-sponsors Jawando, Rice and Nancy Navarro, to assume there is a black and white spectrum of who can and cannot afford a rent increase.

With introductory arguments finished, Council President Sydney Katz moved on to debate over each amendment discussed in part 1, starting with the Friedson-Glass Amendment.

The Friedson/Glass Amendment

Amend the bill to allow an increase up to the level of the County’s Voluntary Rent Increase Guidelines (VRG). This year’s suggested increase is 2.6%.

Friedson rationalized allowing increases up to 2.6% by appealing to the “Time Value of Money.” You can read the wikipedia article if you want but it is just an Econ 101 way of saying “rather a dollar today than two dollars tomorrow.” The value of money now is worth more in earning potential than money later.

According to Friedson, property owners have to raise rents during a health crisis because otherwise they cannot keep up with increasing operating expenses. But Friedson applies TVM only one way, from the landlord’s point of view.

At-Large Coucilmember Evan Glass co-wrote the amendment and went on his own long-winded justification: putting teeth on the County’s Voluntary Rent Guidelines (VRG) was a move towards “progress,” in his view.

He explained he never understood the VRG and thought landlords ignored them. This isn’t exactly true as the Office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs uses the VRG as a metric to judge exorbitant rent increases, just for one example. Nevertheless, Glass proudly declared the amendment would provide certainty to “both sides” of the rental equation and end “rent-gouging.”

A brief side-bar on Councilmember Glass 

Glass’s reference to “rent-gouging” is interesting because I’m not sure whether he was knowingly introducing a red herring or was just oblivious to the original intention of the legislation.

District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker briefly referred to Bill 18-20E as “anti-gouging” during the discussion in part 1, but this was only after the Friedson-Glass’s amendment. Bill co-sponsors had used exorbitant, rent-gouging increases received by tenants as a reason to support the bill’s intention but they were never the focus of the bill. The focus of the bill was easing tenant concerns about rent increase, not stopping predatory rent-gouging.

Glass’s reference to rent-gouging led to confusion among the other councilmembers. Many assumed he meant any increases above the VRG was price gouging. Riemer and Friedson made this interpretation and quickly stood up for property owners, saying 2-3 percent increases didn’t count as price-gouging.

So, Glass walked back, saying “rent-gouging” was the language used by Bill 18-10E cosponsors (presumably, Will Jawando with his price-gouging examples provided by renters). The Friedson-Glass amendment, Glass went on to claim, ends this conflation over what is or isn’t price-gouging by putting teeth on the VRG.

It may seem trivial reading about this confusion but consider what just happened. Glass loaded his introductory remarks with “West Wing” style rhetoric, laying praise on the Council’s efforts (and particularly, his own efforts). But this wound-up confusing his fellow councilmembers about the intention of the amendment by introducing an entirely different focus (anti-rent gouging). After realizing he confused his allies, Glass claimed it was the Bill 18-20E co-sponsors who had actually caused the confusion in the first place!

I find this amusing to a point but ultimately contemptible of Glass. He was more focused on his lofty speeches about good governance and the $2 million in rental assistance he was working on than the intention behind Bill 18-20E. When his amendment it made him look silly, he blamed the people actually trying to help renters.

For the rest of the hearing, Glass made no real contributions of any value, he kept his remarks away from the substance of Bill 18-20E and instead talked about overall County efforts to assist those in need.

District 5 Councilmember Nancy Navarro argued the Friedson-Glass amendment made a simple piece of legislation too complex. In her opinion, the bill as introduced sent a message to all renters, especially the vulnerable. District 2 Councilmember Craig Rice agreed that the Council should look into strengthening the VRG but that the current pandemic called for a more immediate emergency response.

The Friedson-Glass amendment went down 2-7 with only Andrew Friedson and Evan Glass in support.

The Friedson Amendment

An amendment to allow the Department of Housing and Community Affairs to allow increases of up to 5% above the current rent if DHCA found the increase “justifiable by financial hardship or increased cost to the landlord.” AND would also permit landlords to issue a one-time fee to recoup increased operational costs if they enter into agreements with DHCA about future rent increases. 

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I got a lot of satisfaction from this debate.

Craig Rice immediately requested the opinion of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs on the proposal. It was not clear whether Friedson had ever consulted the department when drafting the legislation.

Aseem Nigam, director of DHCA, re-stated the intention of the bill to lessen worries of rent increases during a public health crisis. It would be difficult, according to Nigam, for DHCA to test a landlord’s “hardship” without criteria and with their limited resources. Since it would disrupt the intention of the bill, the Department objected to the amendment.

Then sparks flew. Rosie McCray-Moody, the manager of the Office of Landlord Tenant Affairs (the section of DHCA that would implement Friedson’s amendment), agreed the Office lacked sufficient personnel and that it would be, “unconscionable [for OLTA] to be in the position of deciding ‘this person gets a 2.6 percent increase’ and ‘this person gets a 5 percent increase.’” Rosie McCray-Moody reminded Coucilmember Friedson that the OFLTA is an impartial mediator between landlord tenant disputes, not a judge of a landlord’s financial hardship.

Friedson responded like a spoiled child.”To call [the amendment] unconscionable is inflammatory and hyperbolic rhetoric.” he whined after Rosie McCray-Moody put him in his place.

Reader, it was glorious.

Consider the impact of Friedson’s amendment: DHCA would have been a de facto agent of landlords looking to get rent increase deals due to poorly defined “hardships.” The agency already lacks resources to deal with current complaints and is expected to assess which renters can afford an increase? It is a poison-pill for the Department’s obligations to serve county residents impartially.

The Friedson Amendment went down 2-7 with only Friedson and Riemer voting yes.

The Jawando Amendment

An amendment to prohibit late fees for late or nonpayment of rent during and for thirty days after the expiration of the emergency.

Glad we got the good news of Andrew Friedson being taken to the woodshed by Rosie McCray-Moody out of the way. Now comes the most bleak moment of Bill 18-20E.

The only positive amendment, spoiler alert, goes down in flames.

The justification is simple: there are tenants who cannot pay their rent already, do not punish them again with late-rent payment fees. People behind on rent due to no fault of their own will be at greater risk of eviction without this amendment.

Yet again, Andrew Friedson invoked the “macro solution to a micro problem” rhetorical excuse. With the state halting evictions, a prohibition on late fees means there will be renters with no incentive to pay rent. Councilmember Hans Riemer concurred. His solution? “We need tenants to talk with their landlord about their ability to pay.”

District 20 Delegate Jhenelle Wilkins has written about the shortcoming of this approach. Myself, I tried to contact my landlord when I first lost my job in late-April. I never heard back. Renters from other large rental complexes have told me stories of not hearing anything regarding lease renewals from their management. “Negotiate with your landlord,” is a liberal fantasia where two parties come to an agreement based on equal footing. This is simply not realistic for renters, who have a structural disadvantage compared to landlords.

For as often as Andrew Friedson invokes the tired “carrots and sticks” analogy, he can’t recognize that renters don’t pay rent out of fear of a “stick” like late payment fees. Renters pay rent because they want to be in good standing as a renter and guarantee they have a place to live. Remember: without just cause eviction legislation a landlord can refuse a lease renewal for any reason without having to disclose why. Refusing a lease renewal from a tenant chronically paying rent late is not illegal for a landlord to do. Renters know their rent payment history is a factor in their tenancy.

And finally, the objection to prohibiting late-payment fees relies on a final, devious, trope of renters. I call it the “give a renter a right,” fallacy. In the kids novels “Give a Mouse a Cookie,” gifting a tasty treat to a mouse leads to a cascading series of requests by the needy rodent.

Apparently, Montgomery County Councilmembers think if you recognize a single renter right then you open the door for a flood of nefarious renters who will take advantage of your good-will. The interesting logic of Montgomery County Councilmembers who oppose prohibiting fees also think a majority of landlords are “doing the right thing” regarding rent increases.

At root of the “give a renter a right” fallacy is that renters, despite having a fraction of the resources and political power of a landlord, are cunning and conniving operators looking to take advantage of a landlord wherever possible. Landlords, on the other hand, mostly act in good faith with the exception of a small minority. The “give an inch, take a mile” mindset is selectively used against renters, criminalizing them from the very start.

It is truly sad that a majority of the Council believes the “give a renter a right” fallacy. The Jawando Amendment went down 3-6, with Sydney Katz, Nancy Navarro, and Will Jawando standing up for tenants.

Understanding renters who fall behind in their payments or unable to pay will only suffer more without late fee prohibitions is impossible for some councilmembers to comprehend.

This is a major moment in the debate. Jawando and Navarro solidified their commitment to renters by voting to prohibit increases. Katz stuck his neck out for renters, Rice was oddly M.I.A., Glass betrayed all his rhetoric about helping tenants, Riemer and Friedson are an expected anti-renter vote. Albornoz has been asleep the whole time but Tom Hucker…

…Tom Hucker gave us a glimpse of what was to come.

Tom Hucker was about to pull one of the greatest “heel-turns” of recent Montgomery County politics.

Hucker turns heel

In professional wrestling, there are “face” and “heel” personas adopted by individual wrestlers representing heroic protagonists and their villainous antagonists, respectively. When a character turns from a good-guy to bad-guy, it is called some variation of “turning heel.”

District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker has traditionally supported tenant legislation, including the A/C requirement legislation passed earlier this year. In other words Hucker was a “face,” a supporter of tenants rights who renters could count on. However, Hucker spoke little during the Bill 18-20E debate until the later stage of discussion. When he did speak up, he expressed his intention to better “target” the bill to “preserve county resources.”

Hucker’s heel turn was reviving the Friedson-Glass amendment with an added 90 day “off-ramp” and using liberal austerity logic as his rationalization.

The Hucker Amendment:

A landlord must not increase a tenant’s rent to an amount that exceeds the VRG during and for 90 days after the state of emergency

With this amendment, Hucker had the gall to claim, “Rent gouging ends in Montgomery County with the passaging this bill.” Never mind that his own amendment says the any protection against unlawful increases only lasts 90 days after the emergency ends…

According to Hucker, the revenue generated from landlords charging rent increases is so crucial that it cannot halt even during a state of emergency. Apparently, even a 2.6 percent increase is enough to keep the county’s food assistance, rent assistance, and business grant programs running during the crisis. I’m being sarcastic but these programs were the examples used by Hucker to claim that we could lose “millions” if the Council implemented a temporary emergency rent increase freeze.

Still not convinced Hucker “turned heel?” Consider Councilmember Hucker said he first tried to “narrow” the bill with an extreme means-testing approach whereby only specific low-income renters would be eligible for the 2.6 percent cap. “There wasn’t enough data,” concluded Hucker. Instead, he opted to lessen any “unintended consequences.”

Hucker’s austerity mindset showed when he complained Bill 18-20E did not include a fiscal analysis. He invoked Friedson’s poisonous bill requiring detailed fiscal analysis for all new legislation which passed last year, although he admitted Friedson’s bill did not require fiscal analysis for expedited bills like 18-20E.

In any case, the Office of Legislative Oversight did prepare a truncated fiscal report. Hucker either ignored this or didn’t find it satisfactory because the report showed a total rent freeze would be beneficial to county residents while noting many affected landlords lived outside Montgomery County.

For all his complaining about the lack of a fiscal analysis and impact on County revenues, Hucker himself did not provide any specific numbers on how much the County could lose from a rent freeze. Jawando pounced on this almost immediately; we don’t know exactly what it will cost to the County but we know for sure it will ruin a number of rent burdened residents. The argument that we cannot act in a way that loses marginal revenues because it risks decreasing funds for other social programs is weak,especially when the action being taken keeps people from resorting to other social programs.

Unfortunately, even with the support of Craig Rice and Nancy Navarro, the rest of the Council would not come to Will Jawando’s point of view. The Hucker amendment passed with only those three dissenting.

Nancy Navarro adequately summed up the amendment, “My North is, ‘how do we explain this to our most vulnerable residents’ and we will have to say we introduced a broad proposal and then we narrowed it.”

This is the correct point of view and a reference for the future. If councilmembers call for “targeting,” “narrowing,” or “focusing” they are more often than not talking about shrinking social programs. Anecdotally, I don’t hear these words thrown around a lot at hearings for business incentives.

And just as Bill 18-20E hobbled out of the debate on the Hucker amendment, Councilmember Riemer appeared to deliver a parting blow.

The Riemer Amendment

If a landlord has issued a rent increase notice that will take effect during the crisis, they may either: amend the notice to comply with the VRG, OR rescind the rent increase altogether. 

According to Riemer, introducing this amendment was specifically requested of him by a local small landlord.

Stop and remember: by County law, any rent increase notice has to come 90 days prior to the new rent taking effect. Jawando picked up on this immediately and requested a friendly amendment to specify that if the rent increase was amended, the 90-day notice period would also be reset for the renter. In effect, this buys the renter more time until they have to pay an increase during a public health crisis.

Unfortunately, Riemer rejected Jawando’s amendment; the property owner who begged for the amendment specifically wanted to avoid resetting the 90-day timer. How’s that as an answer to the question of who your government works for!

I want to end the official recounting of the debate by congratulating Councilmember Will Jawando. When Riemer’s amendment came to a vote, he was the only member to vote “no,” standing up for renters despite being bloodied over and over during the debate.

His original intention to help renters immediately was watered down, his colleagues rejected his attempt to protect renters from falling behind in fees, he argued over and over the case of real renters facing increases right now. Councilmember Jawando really put up a fight for this legislation and I respect that more than I respect any member like Councilmember Glass, who used the debate to showcase his own minor accomplishments (or Albornoz, who might as well have been asleep).

This is way too long to continue any further so I will wrap up any final thoughts and take-aways in a subsequent post. If you have questions, comments, or takes aways I’d be happy to hear them and include them in next week’s discussion.

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