Council Candidates Ruffle Tenant Feathers

Tommy Wells, Ward 6
Tommy Wells, Ward 6

In a 2010 election campaign where the focus and news coverage seems to be almost exclusively on the combative struggle between incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and council Chairman Vincent Gray and, less so, the two-man race between At-large Councilman Kwame Brown and former Ward 5 Councilman Vincent Orange, the numerous races for other city council seats sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

The recent D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition city council candidates forum at the venerable Sumner School tried to pack in all the council candidates, including Brown and Orange, into one forum, a process that proved to be both unwieldy and illuminating, a kind of fasten-your-seatbelts night with lots of placards outside while a picture of political diversity emerged inside.

As is often the case with any forums sponsored by particular groups, the focus often tends to be on the interests and concerns of that group. TENAC is a coalition of groups focusing on the concerns of renters, which make up a majority of D.C. residents. That includes protection from landlords, the preservation and extensions of rent control laws, legal representation against landlords, tenant rights issues, development, condo conversions, the need for affordable housing units and so on.

The issues of affordable housing and the rights of tenants is a kind of arena where we-the-people populism clashes with age-old economic interests, usually big and small business developers, construction companies, lobbyists, and property owners with deeper pockets and what are often seen as heartless tactics (hence the mention of the plight of people evicted from their domiciles, their property and belongings strewn all over the sidewalk).

The issues vary throughout the city, and they’re very much a part of today’s economic climate of failed mortgages, a housing market that’s stalled, condos that aren’t selling, buildings that are either being converted to condo status, or re-converted to rental units with higher price tags. TENAC confronts these issues as an advocate for tenants, and that often includes battling developers, promoting mixed use projects and, above all, preserving rent control.

“There is no substitute for rent control,” said Jim McGrath, the dynamic, eloquent TENAC president with a bit of an Irish lilt and bent in his voice. “All of you who came here tonight have a stake in this, and we want to hear from the folks who are running all over the District and their stands on this and other issues.”

You see all sorts of people at forums — the homeowners worried about more taxes, students, bankers, landlords and developers, hotel managers, tourist workers, restaurant owners, teachers and educators, city workers and advocates for the homeless. The rich, the poor, people with a lot, people struggling, people with visions for the city’s future, and people who see things others don’t, people who want to keep what they have, and people afraid they’ll lose just that.

Renters make up a large body of potential voters, but they’re also some of the most economically vulnerable people in the city. They have to deal with regulations and regulators, officialdom and bureaucracies in maintaining some semblance of day-to-day living security. So you’ll find elderly people on fixed incomes living in endangered rent control apartments, or families living in complexes or units where owners have decided to convert to either much higher rents or condominiums. Some of those situations conspire to erupt into all-out legal warfare and tactics in which landlords have been known to reduce basic services in order to drive current renters out.

Lots of people showed up to tell their stories, and even more candidates showed up, some of whom many people around the city are probably not aware. The forum was also hurt by the fact that it competed with a D.C. Night Out event. “National Night Out is Fine,” McGrath said. “Tenants’ night in is better.” Both Brown and Orange were absent at the start of the forum.

Still, here was Ward One incumbent Jim Graham pointing all of his legislative and one-man endeavors to keep rent control and its extensions and efforts to make it permanent, and explaining how elected officials, advocates for tenant rights and realtors work in an arena that is full of “Faustian deals.”

This is a world in which there is—in spite of the claims of officialdom—a decreasing affordable housing lot, and as Ward 3 Councilperson Mary Cheh and others pointed out, the very definition of affordable housing “might surprise you.”

“We are not talking about people at or near poverty-level earnings, were talking high five-figure salaries that qualify.”

It’s a slippery world where the rules change all the time. These forums where the tumult of the Gray and Fenty campaigns have receded open up still another world — where Graham, for instance, has two very viable challengers in Bryan Weaver and Jeff Smith, easily the two best dressed men in the room. It’s a world where Phil Mendelson, facing a tough challenge from Clark Ray for an at-large council seat, doggedly presented himself as a defender of rent control, of renters and vox populis, and where Ward 6 contender Tommy Wells faced his challenger, the eloquent Kelvin Robinson, once again.

It is a different world, this kind of forum—a world of struggling people trying to sort out the words of candidates who seem closer to them than the more large-scale politicians battling for the top spots.

Even so, things happen. An alarm went off. Literally. The building had to be evacuated. As we walked down behind a woman slowed by ailing joints, you could hear a man say “Somebody did this. I just know it. They didn’t want things to go right here.” Firemen walked through the building checking alarms. There was no fire, although there was a lot of fiery oratory.

News From the Campaign

Earlier in the campaign, after a mayoral campaign, TENAC ended up endorsing challenger Vincent Gray over Fenty because “he will look out after tenants’ rights better than the incumbents,” among many reasons offered up by McGrath.

TENAC wasn’t alone in supporting Gray. Both the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO offered up their endorsement of Gray, as did the Latino community and other groups recently.

Fenty, on the other hand, received an early and glowing endorsement from the Washington Post which has supported almost uncritically his stand on school reform and his unstinting support in that direction of Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who most recently and controversially fired over 200 teachers based on untried and locally developed evaluation systems, a development that so far has been met with almost total silence on the campaign trail.

Lacking regular polls, straw polls, themselves not necessarily reliable, have been used by observers on the campaign trail to try and make some sense of the ebb and flow of the campaigns. Fenty wins Ward 8, surprisingly, has a too-close win in Ward 2, drops Wards 3 and 6, and most recently suffered a startling loss in Ward 4, Fenty’s home district, where long-time residents appeared to rise up in revolt against him.

That straw poll event included by all account a loud, raucous forum, accompanied by imported supporters, some rough back-and-forths between the candidates and their supporters. It’s uncertain whoever’s ahead, but it’s also certain that the level of civility has fallen among the main contenders and their followers and the level of hostility has risen.

Straw polls are notoriously unreliable as indicators, but the Ward 4 results seem to have sent ripples through the media, votes, and the camps of all the candidates. Stay tuned for storms and loud political noises.

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Thu, 24 Jul 2014 16:02:09 -0400

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