Dozens of Montgomery County renters packed a meeting room Monday to fight back against evictions and unregulated rent increases they say are forcing some residents, including vulnerable seniors, out of their homes.
A group that advocates for renters' rights hosted the meeting in Bethesda, drawing local and state officials and renters who say they want more stable and affordable living.
Nearly half the crowd was comprised of residents of the Willard, an apartment complex in Chevy Chase. Tenants there say they had their rent increased by five percent last year by a previous property owner and expect to see it raised another five percent this year by the building’s new owner, a Chicago-based realty investment trust.
“We’re seeing lots of fellow tenants being forced in their 70s and 80s to move,” said David Cohen, chair of the renters' association for the Willard. “I can tell you [moving] is difficult to do at any age. At that point in life, it’s not just financially hard, it’s emotionally hard.”
The percentage of residents who rent in Montgomery County has soared in the last decade, according the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, which hosted the regional meeting. About 30 percent of residents in Montgomery County now rent, up from single digits 10 years ago, the group said, citing Census data.
Despite a large presence in the county, officials said they often don’t hear from renters, though tenants can face high rent increases, no-cause eviction and landlords who don’t properly maintain rental property.
“What we’re trying to do is give a voice for renters in Montgomery County that didn’t exist before,” said Matt Losak, the group's executive director.
Losak said the alliance formed from a tenants’ work group appointed by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett in 2008. The group’s recommendations included establishing a rent-control law and requiring landlords to have “just cause” before terminating a lease, according to a Washington Post report.
“Tenants have no security in where they live,” said County Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) at the meeting. “You live where you live at the whim of the person who owns the building. You can be a good tenant and pay your rent every month and get no mercy in the form of rent increases. And there’s no guarantee you’ll be there a year from now.”
Elrich was among officials including Maryland Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20), Maryland Del. Sheila Hixson (D-Dist. 20), Maryland Del. Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20) and Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler (D) who attended the meeting.
Montgomery County does not limit the amount a landlord can increase rent each year. The county does, however, establish a voluntary rent guideline annually based on the rental component of the Consumer Price Index for the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area.
For 2012, the guideline is 2.8 percent.
“We’ve had a 10 percent increase in a little over a year, with the prospect that that will continue,” Cohen, of the Willard, told the crowd.
Cohen said a general impression of renters as low-income or young doesn’t hold true, especially in Montgomery County. Many of the building’s tenants are seniors seeking a “simpler lifestyle, on one floor, where someone else does the improvements and the repairs," he said.
Large yearly rent increases would ultimately make renting unaffordable for tenants, especially the elderly, Cohen said.
“If you start renting at age 60, you may be renting 25, 30, 35 years,” Cohen said. “There’s several people in our building in their 90s still cooking on all cylinders.”
Marty McKenna, a spokesman for Chicago-based Equity Residential, which owns the property, said there has been good acceptance on the rent increases at the Willard.
“Even with the five percent increase, which we’re doing across the board at that property, many of those units are still well below what the rents are in that market,” McKenna said.
Officials vowed to work towards more stability for renters, saying a sense of permanence for residents is a benefit for the community.
Elrich, who helped establish rent control in Takoma Park as a member of the city’s council, said it’s been working successfully there for years.
In 2008, as a member of the Montgomery County Council, Elrich pitched a proposal that would prevent landlords from drastically increasing rents countywide, according to a Gazette report. But the proposal was blasted by opponents who argued the housing market should determine rental rates and said rent control could stifle development, The Gazette reported.
Elrich described what he felt was a lack of support for rent stabilization, but vowed to develop a modified proposal that would deal with the “most egregious forms of rent gouging.”
Officials encouraged renters to get organized.
“There’s no reason politicians shouldn’t be doing more for tenants," said Hucker. “We need to see a huge fraction of that 30 percent to come down to Annapolis and make their voices heard.”