City council struggles with landlords who ignore voluntary rent guidelines

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By Erich Wagner [File Photo]

Officials with the city office of housing said last week that Alexandria’s voluntary rent control guidelines do not deter all major landlords from hiking rent exorbitantly.

As part of a report presented to city councilors as they voted to renew the guidelines last week, housing division chief Melodie Seau said the number of resident complaints about rent hikes above the city’s guidelines — 5 percent per year if tenants pay for utilities, 7 percent if utilities are included — increased from 22 in fiscal 2013 to 28 last year.

“The properties with multiple complaints are usually recently purchased and being renovated,” Seau told city councilors. “Three property owners accounted for the majority of complaints in fiscal 2014. We can usually get them down to a certain degree [through mediation] … but not to the amount set up in the guidelines.”

City Councilor Justin Wilson said although there isn’t much more council can do legislatively — Virginia law prohibits municipalities from enacting mandatory rent control — maybe the city can use a different tactic: public embarrassment.

“Why not just list the landlords who don’t comply?” Wilson said. “It would be a kind of shame-driven compliance effort.”

Housing Director Mildrilyn Davis warned against such a move, arguing it would poison the well and discourage landlords from cooperating with city officials on the issue at all.

“People might not work with us; I think it’s always a bad idea to single people out,” Davis said. “As it is, we do have some success mediating and dealing with individual complaints.”

But if mediation can’t even bring landlords to fully comply with the guidelines, it seems pointless even having them, Wilson argued.

“I think my view of it is kind of simple, which is: We have this voluntary guideline and we’re the only jurisdiction [in Virginia] that has it and we’ve had it for a long time, but it doesn’t seem like, based on the statistics, that it’s all that successful,” he said after the hearing. “At this point we need to try something different or get rid of them. The way I suggested is being more public about it, something like what the [Better Business Bureau] does in gaining compliance.”

Other councilors warned against making such decisions hastily.

“[Wilson] raises a good point, but I don’t think we ought to rush to judgment,” said Mayor Bill Euille. “It’s something we ought to think through and be careful and cautious about how to proceed … It’s not like they’ve violated the law.”

Seau said the guidelines exist as a baseline for staff to work out a deal between landlords and tenants.

“Even though we don’t name them, I think most people know who the properties are,” Seau said. “We’ve gotten complaints from tenants, it’s been in the press, people can pick it.

“[The] reason for the guidelines is the number of properties where we do get the amount reduced. Even when we don’t get it reduced to the level of the guidelines, we are mediating complaints and getting it reduced to some degree.”

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