By EMELY MIRANDA-AGUILAR
Shortly after being elected in 2019, Councilmember Danny Schaible (Ward 2) was told by a constituent that their landlord increased their rent by more than 50%.
“That constituent reached out to me and asked if that was legal, and without something like rent stabilization, the answer is ‘Yes, it is legal,’” said Schaible.
Hearing other complaints about lawful yet excessive rent hikes in Hyattsville, Schaible developed an interest in rent stabilization and began working with fellow councilmembers to create an ordinance that aimed to bring rents under control.
The ordinance will regulate annual increases in rental prices in the city, where there are approximately 4,730 multi-family units and 519 single family rentals.
Under the ordinance, the change in the consumer price index — the fluctuations in the prices of goods and services that people commonly buy — will determine the maximum allowable annual rent increase. (Rent control imposes fixed prices that are difficult to raise, while rent stabilization typically restricts allowable increases to a set percentage tied to factors like inflation.)
Schaible said that using the consumer price index in either low or high inflation is a compromise between how much rent can go up and its impact on property owners.
In 2021, Hyattsville adopted a 10-year Housing Action Agenda to support and create fair and affordable housing opportunities. In addition to increased housing affordability and removal of racially restrictive covenants, one of the plan’s priorities was creating a rent stabilization policy. Though such a policy can establish cost predictability — how well the costs compare with the original estimated cost — it cannot be used primarily as a housing affordability tool.
According to a study conducted and submitted by Enterprise Advisors, who provide consultations, technical assistance and capacity-building support for Hyattsville, “[A rent stabilization ordinance] should be designed to complement policies and programs that more directly make rents affordable for households with low and moderate incomes.”
After conducting its research, Enterprise Advisors made numerous recommendations on the ordinance’s original language. The most recent version, from the December 2023 meeting, included some of these recommendations.
Changes include increasing the number of units in a building that will be exempt from the limits imposed through the ordinance from two to four. If a building has four or fewer units, the ordinance will not apply. In addition, the ordinance now states that appeals from landlords and regulations related to the right to a fair return shall be prepared by the city and approved by the city council.
Other properties exempt from the ordinance include rental properties less than 15 years old, properties where the tenants share a kitchen or bathroom with the owner, short-term leasing agreements of 30 days or less, accessory apartment and dwelling units, and units subsidized or regulated by federal, state, county or local guidelines.
During the meeting, the mayor and all councilmembers voted to authorize the preparation of the ordinance, except for Councilmember Emily Strab (Ward 2), who abstained.
Strab said she was concerned that the ordinance did not incentivize property owners and managers to provide fair wages to employees and pay for other expenses on their properties. She suggested adding a buffer or escalator, between 1% and 3%, to the ordinance and an overall cap, rather than solely relying on the consumer price index.
Strab also said she’s hesitant and does not see why Hyattsville needs a rent stabilization program if the county is already working on one. The county established a rent stabilization workgroup made up of various stakeholders that began meeting in July 2023 and will conclude in June 2024. The workgroup is studying and offering recommendations for a permanent rent stabilization bill.
“Right now, it seems to me that it could possibly be a waste for us to invest dollars into standing up this program,” Strab said. “I’d much rather see that money go into direct rental assistance for Hyattsville residents who are most in need, rather than standing up a duplicative program.”
Council Vice President Joanne Waszczak (Ward 1) disagreed and lauded the ordinance.
“I think that we as a group are planning and discussing a fair and balanced approach overall,” Waszczak said. “I am supportive of keeping the rent stabilization to the consumer price index because I think that is the middle way.”
Tram Hoang, a senior associate at PolicyLink — a national research and action institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity — also voiced her support for the ordinance.
“The proposed policy has many promising features that align with the best practices for tenant outcomes, such as the creation of a rental registry, inclusion of rental fees and the maximum allowable rent increase, as well as the inclusion of civil recourse to support implementation and enforcement,” Hoang said.
Many Hyattsville members of CASA, a Latino and immigration advocacy and assistance organization based in Maryland, also urged the council to pass the ordinance. Spanish-speaking renters testified about their financial situations, experiences with their landlords, and how rent increases have impacted their families’ lives.
“My bills every month are over $150, and if I’m ever late on rent, I get charged $65 per day. Sometimes I’m left with nothing after I pay my rent,” said Maria Hernandez, who has been a Hyattsville resident for 30 years and whose monthly rent is $1,700.
The proposed ordinance is similar to one passed in Takoma Park, as the local consumer price index governs both. It was adopted in 1981 to protect affordable housing and economic and ethnic diversity in the city.
The current rent increase allowance in Takoma Park — applicable only to rent increases between July 1, 2023, and June 30, 2024 — is 3.7%.
Other key elements of Hyattsville’s rent stabilization ordinance include a rental registry, annual rent stabilization notifications in English and Spanish posted in a public space of every property subject to rent increase limits, landlords’ right to petition for a rent increase to obtain fair return and preferential rent banking when there is a change of tenants.
The city’s attorney is working on the ordinance’s proper codified language. After that, the council will convene several times to review the final ordinance before voting on approval. Schaible said he believes this will be some time at the end of January or February.
Council President Joseph Solomon (Ward 5) indicated that the ordinance deserves approval.
“There are council colleagues who questioned whether or not this is the time,” Solomon said. “It is the time, and I think that this will be another item that, locally, we will be looked at as the template on how to get this done.”
Emely Miranda-Aguilar is a journalism student at the University of Maryland, College Park.