Council Rejects Park at Halfway House Site, Maintains Ban on Rent Increases

The most recent Legislative Meeting’s agenda included a slate of votes on deeply nuanced measures.

One of the most attention-getting votes involved the consideration of a measure that would have authorized the Mayor to exercise her eminent domain authority to seize the site of a proposed halfway house, and instead use the land for an urban park. While the measure failed in a divided vote, what is lost in simply examining the yeas and nays were the takes, expected and unexpected, that the councilmembers had on the topic. Unlike in many jurisdictions, the councilmembers were united in their support for a productive and caring welcome back for our returning citizens. Unlike in many jurisdictions, where elected officials might fight to shift a proposed halfway house out of their jurisdiction and into a neighboring locale, the councilmembers seemed united in wanting to ensure that federal Bureau of Prisons absolutely not shift the proposed halfway house to Baltimore, and instead to ensure it would stay in DC. They also seemed unified in thinking the planned 300-bed size for the proposed halfway house is too large, and that DC’s lack of statehood hampered our ability to nuance what the federal Bureau of Prisons proposed. In the end, the divided vote seemed to primarily reflect a divided opinion on how far a game of chicken with the Bureau of Prisons could safely be taken, whether eminent domain was a feasible way of seizing the site, and if a public park would be a reasonable alternate use of the site. This was not simply a vote about a park, or a halfway house.

Similarly, the Council voted at its most recent meeting to create a public safety exception, in cases of violence, in the COVID-inspired eviction ban. First, it should be remembered that the Council created the eviction ban with its first COVID emergency response bill, and via its subsequent renewals and expansions of that legislation, is on the record multiple times, renewing their support for the ban. The language of this compromise was a response to both tenants and landlords, and was crafted by the Mayor’s joint tenant/landlord strike force. Administrative and judicial checks on determinations of the violence that would allow specific evictions to proceed were thought to avoid potential misuse of the violence exception.

The Council decided the balance tipped in the other direction in regards to a proposed rent increase bill. That bill would have allowed rent increases to begin immediately on vacant units, but would have extended the ban on rent increases for a year beyond its current anticipated end point for those put in financial hardship by the COVID crisis. While the extension for those most in need seemed of potential interest to many councilmembers, the means of triggering it (a needed signature on a mailed affidavit) was seen by some as potentially too burdensome or intimidating and unlikely to be utilized by many recipients. The need for an ability to raise rents during a time when studies show rents are down District-wide, was also questioned by some. The measure was defeated.

Also at its most recent meeting, the Council voted to again delay the date by which the Mayor is required to submit her proposed budget to the Council. The passage of recent federal COVID response legislation requires the Department of the Treasury to issue, prior to May 10, guidelines on how exactly localities can spend the funds included in the massive bill. The Council discussed that any budget the Mayor might submit absent that guidance would not reflect the reality of the actual budget circumstances facing the District. Therefore, despite concerns that starting the Council budget even later than previous postponed dates would limit the Council’s ability to impact and adjust the budget, the Council voted to allow the Mayor to submit the budget on May 27. Even that new date allows the Mayor’s budget team just 17 days to incorporate the content of the May 10 guidance and finalize their budget proposal.

In other important action, the Council passed measures condemning both hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and racial disparities in law enforcement response to protesters.

The Council’s next scheduled Legislative Meeting will be held on May 4. A Committee of the Whole meeting is scheduled for April 20, and it is possible a Legislative Meeting will also be held on that date.