Earlier this week, the D.C. Council overwhelmingly voted in favor of a change to an essential law that, when implemented, will accelerate gentrification and displace tenants long dependent on the graces of homeowners with extra space in their residences.
In a 10-2 vote on Tuesday, the D.C. Council moved to abolish protections afforded to tenants of single-family homes under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). For nearly 40 years, TOPA has granted tenants of apartments and single-family homes the first-right-of-refusal when their landlord announces their intention to not renew their lease and sell the property. This means that tenants can intercept the transaction between the homeowner and third-party buyer, most likely a developer, and match the third-party buyer’s offer. After that, they would have an allotted time period to secure a home loan in that amount. The entire TOPA process takes 180 days, or nearly six months.
Tenants in apartments could use the law to purchase the property as a co-op. In some cases, they could lobby for ownership of their single unit, saving the owner some costs. The writer of this article, a native Washingtonian and one-time tenant in a single-family home, successfully navigated the TOPA process last year on the journey to homeownership, as had 19 other single-family home tenants since TOPA’s inception.
Unfortunately, D.C.’s realtor lobby, developers, and D.C. Council members anxious to serve their money hungry constituents, failed to consider the aforementioned facts of this case. Instead, they ignored nuance, bypassed the pleas of tenant association members, and heavily relied on the findings of an investigation that showed how TOPA lawyers helped secure payouts of up to $30,000 for tenants who had no intention to purchase property from their landlord. This information supported Council testimony from homeowners who revealed instances where TOPA abuse interrupted plans to finance children’s college education and moves to elder care facilities.
Proponents of the single-family home exemption argue that not doing so would discourage homeowners, wary of conniving tenants, from renting out their basements, a trend that could negatively affect D.C.’s housing market. That concern has legitimacy, which is why an amendment scrapping the TOPA payout portion of the law would have sufficed. As can be seen from the outside looking in, the powers that didn’t explore that option. Developments around the TOPA debate have also provided insight. Last year, a committee, led by D.C. Council chair Phil Mendelson (D), was tasked with exploring the case further and coming to a commonsensical solution. Instead, Mendelson dissolved the committee, telling his colleagues they had nothing more to discuss on this matter.
The financially conscious among D.C. residents would disagree. In the era of gentrification, spurred by the construction of Nationals Stadium and other projects, several Black and immigrant families living in the Shaw, Petworth, and Ivy City neighborhoods have been displaced by rapid development, finding themselves with little to no place to go. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of homeless families increased by 30 percent, according to a study conducted last year. D.C. currently has the highest rate of homelessness among all major American cities.
With D.C. home prices at the highest they’ve been in 10 years, few options exist for tenants who want to transition to homeownership in the D.C. neighborhood of their choice. By exempting single-family homes from TOPA protections, the D.C. Council has opened the gates for a developer buying frenzy, in which developers will buy these homes at below market-rate prices, furnish and add amenities to them, before selling it for a much higher price. The losers in this deal are the tenants who could’ve matched that low offer and gotten a chance to own the place they’d helped their landlord pay off for some time, especially with the help of the Home Purchase Assistance Program. Ultimately, the losers will also be indigenous Washingtons, on both sides of this issue, who will see the very fabric of their community torn apart by colonizers, more than it already has been since at least 2007.
A second reading and vote on the single-family home exemption for TOPA has been scheduled for April. It’s incumbent upon the D.C. Council as a unit to think long and hard about the implications of this move. There’s no way to ensure that eliminating TOPA rights for this class of tenant will encourage homeowners to rent out their homes, but if history is a teacher — and it is — majority-indigenous D.C. communities, such as Deanwood in Northeast, could go to the wayside much sooner than later.