By Joe Murchison

As of the middle of April, Prince George’s County renters will not be subject to any rent increases greater than 3% for a period of one year. 

The county council passed this rent-stabilization law on Feb. 28, to take effect 45 days after it is signed by County Executive Angela Alsobrooks. She was expected to sign the bill by March 6, according to the office of County Councilmember Krystal Oriadha (District 7), who spearheaded the bill. 

More than 100 people jammed the chambers of the Prince George’s County Council to support and oppose the rent-cap law.
Photo Credit: Joe Murchison

The law will apply to about one-third of the county’s residents, as the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 37% of county dwellings are rentals.

The council, which passed the measure on a 9-1 vote after more than 100 people crowded the room for a public hearing that lasted more than three hours, made clear that they intend to spend the coming year crafting another measure to replace it. “We know that this is not a long-term solution,” Oriadha said. “This is to stop the bleeding.”

“People are hurting in our community,” agreed Councilmember Eric Olson (District 3). “So we need to act.”

The one vote against was by Councilmember Mel Franklin (At-Large), who said such rent caps don’t work and were being abandoned by the few jurisdictions across the country that had adopted them. Councilmember Ingrid Watson (District 4) was absent.

Franklin, along with Councilmembers Calvin Hawkins (At-Large) and Sydney Harrison (District 9), had unsuccessfully introduced an alternative anti-gouging bill that would have capped rent increases at 20% and created a rental assistance fund. He said all landlords should not be punished for the exorbitant rent hikes of, in his words, a few “bad actors.” 

The new law exempts rental units from the cap during their first five years of use. Apartments that are part of a government affordable-housing subsidy program, such as federal Section 8 would also be exempt.

Britney Garcia and her father, Edwin Ramire, wear Stop Rent Hikes T-shirts supplied by CASA de Maryland.
Photo Credit: Joe Murchison

Dozens of renters from across the county attended the Feb. 28 hearing to testify in favor of the law, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Stop Rent Hikes; the shirts were supplied by CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy organization. Most dramatically, Jeanette Kenne of Chillum said that she had fallen behind in rent during the pandemic because her cleaning clients wouldn’t allow her in their homes, and she faces  eviction. “Today is the last day for me,” she said. “The property manager asked me to hand in the keys. I don’t know where I will be.” (After Kenne’s testimony, Oriadha came down from the dais and conferred with her quietly as other people continued testifying.) 

Councilmember Krystal Oriadha, left, who spearheaded the rent-cap legislation, confers with Jeanette Kenne after she testified that she was being evicted that day.
Photo Credit: Joe Murchison

Calondra Young testified that she and her grandmother had been forced out of their Laurel apartment in 2021 by rent increases, resulting in her being homeless for a year. 

Rose Thompson, a 65-year-old Laurel resident, said she had lived in her apartment on 11th Street for 25 years when a new landlord doubled her rent. The landlord later decided to reduce the increase when CASA and two city councilmembers intervened, but that adjustment was only to last a year, she said. “My time is about up. … I’m asking where I can go and how to pay rent, eat, pay gas and electric, and put gas in my car.” 

Kia Jefferson of Laurel said she had received a notice of an $800 rent hike less than a month before it was due. Again, the landlord agreed to lower the increase for a year, but without longer-term guarantees.

Eddie Mallorca of Laurel said he had received a notice for a $370 rent increase. He came to Laurel 20 years ago, after fleeing the poverty and danger of his native country, he said. “Now I’m asking not to have to run again from Prince George’s County.”

Jerome Shipp, an employee of the City of Hyattsville Department of Public Works, said his Bladensburg apartment complex had hit him with a rent increase from $900 to $1,139. “Jobs don’t increase salaries to pay the rent,” he said. He added that his truck was in the shop, he was getting around on a bicycle and  was now putting in hours for DoorDash in order to keep up with the rent hike.  

Deloris Prioleau told of a $400 to $500 rent hike at her senior apartment complex in Upper Marlboro. “Seniors on fixed incomes cannot afford to pay increases of over 4 to 5%,” she said. Some of the residents are now turning to food banks for the first time, she added.

Elected officials from three municipalities supported the renters’ pleas.

Hyattsville City Councilmember Danny Schaible (Ward 2) noted that more than half of that city’s residents are renters. “In 2018, 43% of our renters were considered cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent.” These renters are “one misstep away from displacement, eviction or homelessness,” he said. Schaible added that the Hyattsville City Council has been working on rent-cap legislation of their own.

Bladensburg City Councilmember Jocelyn Route (Ward 1) also urged passage. “My residents have been affected greatly by rent gouging,” she said, telling of an 80-year-old constituent who was evicted after her rent was doubled to $1,500. City officials were able to negotiate a lower increase and return the woman to her home.

Laurel City Councilmember Martin Mitchell (At-large) brought a petition of support signed by 142 residents.

In addition, Shannon Mouton, executive director of Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services (LARS), spoke in favor  of the measure. She said LARS was on track to spend $600,000 toward eviction prevention during the year ending on June 30. “Remember, the best way to prevent homelessness is to keep people in the homes they already have,” she said.

People testifying against the bill also numbered in the dozens. Gabrielle Duvall, executive vice president and general counsel of Southern Management Companies, told the council that her county-based business manages 11,027 rental units in Prince George’s County – 1,000 of them in the city of Laurel. She said that the average rent increase for these homes during the past year was only 2.59%. She also noted that 8.9% of its tenants, in 981 homes, were delinquent in rent payments by more than 60 days.

(After the hearing, Duvall said that rent caps are counterproductive because they reduce the supply of rental housing, as investors avoid the jurisdiction and landlords convert apartments to condos or to other uses. She noted that a rent cap in St. Paul, Minn., drove down the number of residential building permits in that city from 1,391 in April 2021 to 200 in April 2022.)

Dean Hunter, CEO of the Small Multifamily & Rental Owners Association, said 40% of the county’s rental housing is held by landlords who own fewer than 25 units, and these individuals and families are trying to cope with rising costs of supplies, labor, property taxes and utilities. He said an example of the law’s unfairness was that it would allow him to levy only a $45 rent increase for a unit that he needed to repair after a renter did $1,500 in damage.

Carl Starling, who owns two rental units in College Park, said, “I’m being pushed out of the market because of this legislation.” 

Boyd Campbell agreed. The real estate broker, who has served on a number of affordable housing task forces at both the county and state levels, said he owned two rental units to help with his retirement. “I feel I’m being personally attacked by this bill. You’re going to chase people like Boyd Campbell out of the county. I’ll sell everything I have and buy in Charles County.” 

Terry Sween testified that his Minnesota-based company, Dominium, which specializes in building lower-than-market-rate housing through contracts with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, would not be able to continue doing business in Prince George’s County under a rent-cap system. Dominium is currently constructing 245 apartments in Landover Hills for which no renter will be charged more than 30% of their income, he said.

Under the new law, landlords violating the cap will be subject to a $500 fine for the first offense and $1,000 for each subsequent infraction. Oriadha noted that if a rent cap is retained after this law sunsets in a year, the county will need to spend money on increased personnel to enforce it.