Today the Montgomery County Office of the Inspector General (IG) issued its Preliminary Information Memorandum (OIG PIM #15-006) in response to complaints by landlord industry representatives including David Hillman, owner and CEO of Southern Management, Inc., the largest rental housing operator in the D.C. region. Mr. Hillman accused the Renters Alliance of misusing County grant funds, a charge we reject entirely as false and fabricated.
In fact, the IG found no malfeasance, but did raise questions about our expenditures asking the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) to clarify our expenditures in order to insure that our use of funds were consistent with our grant contract requirements. The IG further required DHCA to demand contract “deliverables” documentation that included reports of meetings and activities, and attendance records.
We are certain we have carried out obligations under our contracts with due diligence and in good faith. All of our county contract expenditures must be pre-approved by DHCA, reviewed for approval by the contract officer with accompanying documentation including receipts, and re-approved by DHCA’s finance officer. Until this complaint was issued in February of this year and the IG investigation ensued, we had received no communication from DHCA or any other County department requesting documentation from us beyond our bi-annual reports since we began this process in 2012. Further, there have been no communications questioning our expenditures or grant obligations—except one in 2013 from DHCA leadership at the time demanding that our database information be released to them. We responded then that we could not—and will not now—provide DHCA or any other entity detailed database information that contains our renters’ full names, addresses, and contact information: our renters are rightly concerned that their landlords might use this information to target them with eviction, raised rents and other harassment. Consequently, DHCA agreed that any lists we provide would demonstrate only that attendance at events occurred, with identifying details redacted. Until now, DHCA has not requested any attendance lists or other documentation. In response to the IG’s request, the Renters Alliance supplied redacted lists with reports of our meeting and public education activities, in accordance with our contract. We have been told repeatedly by DHCA that we have delivered all that is required by the contract.
The landlord complaint accused us of being a “sham” and “a single-agenda lobbying firm,” whose sole purpose is to promote rent control.
The Renters Alliance does support the development of a rent stabilization program similar to that implemented successfully in Takoma Park, Washington D. C. and other parts of the United States; however, we engage in a broad range of other activities and services to renters. These include:
The Renters Alliance’s education role extends also to informing the Montgomery Council and Maryland General Assembly about renter protection policies and legislation that is completely within the law, and does not require any County funds. Moreover according to the Montgomery County Ethics Commission found that “the information provided by the complainant did not suggest RA or its Executive Director, Mr. Losak tripped the thresholds that would necessitate they register as lobbyists under County law.” Education of our legislators is part of our stated mission and publicly promoted on our website, in our newsletter and in the media.
We have conducted scores of meetings with renters and community groups to discuss our issues, form alliances and distribute literature and information relevant to renters. We have mediated dozens of complaints from renters on topics ranging from excessive rent increases, building code enforcement issues, noise, maintenance issues, mold and vermin, abusive and negligent landlords and property managers, assistance in organizing and forming tenants associations, landlord retaliation cases, assistance with renters seeking more responsive government enforcement of renters rights and renters in crisis suffering from mental illness, poverty and disabilities.
The complaint further accuses the Renters Alliance of using County funds for lobbying citing specifically our “Renter Day in Annapolis” event last year and our candidates forums for county and state office.
Fully authorized in advance by DHCA and within the law, these outreach activities were intended to provide renters with the opportunity to tell their stories and relate their concerns to candidates for office about living in rental housing. As such, the IG’s memo and legal counsel advise us these activities simply do not constitute “lobbying”—defined as a request (or “ask”), by us for a specific legislative outcome. The Renters Alliance invited the entire County Council, the County Executive, and the Montgomery County state representatives to attend these “renters’ night” events that included candidates from all parties. The Renters Alliance posted on our website responses to our questionnaire as they were provided to us from candidates. Consistent with our 501-c-3 status, we did not endorse any candidate or party. The events focusing on renter issues were the first of their kind anywhere in the state or County. We believe renters’ nights provided an unprecedented opportunity for renters to express their voice and to learn about the philosophies, policy and opinions of current and potential county officials.
With regard to the lobbying activities that the Renters Alliance has engaged in:
We have testified in favor of several bills at the state and County levels including:
We have not used County funds for this purpose, but instead relied on privately donated funds. Further, these activities represent only a small fraction of our overall activities and do not trigger any requirement to register as lobbyists.
The Renters Alliance was formed at the express recommendation of the County’s Tenant Work Group (TWG, 2008-2010) which was convened by the County Executive in response to more than 1,000 renters who signed a petition urging him to look into renter concerns. The TWG report made more than 50 recommendations in its report to promote renter security and improve rental housing quality, code enforcement, government responsiveness and renter education and outreach.
The Renters Alliance, formed in 2010, received a small, $40,000 County Executive grant in FY2012 as “seed” funds to establish a website, create and print education materials and begin outreach. We receive an additional $40,000 CE grant in FY2013 followed by combined grants from the County Executive and the Council (principally proposed by Council member Marc Elrich) of $75,000 in FY14 and $70,000 in FY15. These funds provided for modest staff salary and operating costs including website maintenance, event space rental and associated costs, printing, advertising and marketing.
We cannot ignore these realities
We are doing a very big job with little funding against a well-organized, multi-billion dollar real estate industry that aggressively opposes most of the recommendations the TWG and the Renters Alliance have made. They have expressed their influence in County politics with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. We find it troubling that the Council President George Leventhal along with other members of the County Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) committee, Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer, have received a substantial amount of those donations. We are deeply concerned that Mr. Leventhal opposed the formation of the Tenants Work Group, its work and the work of the Renters Alliance from the beginning, opposed DHCA funding for renter outreach last year and, as one of his first acts as Council President, removed pro-renter Council Member Marc Elrich from the PHED committee . We find it alarming that the latest act of the Council led by Mr. Leventhal, eliminates the Renters Alliance FY2016 grant—recommended by the County Executive— of $35,000, requiring that the funds instead be made available through issuance of a Request for Proposal (RFP) that will take at least a six-months to implement a competitive bid process, thereby interrupting our funding and the services we provide. We believe the real intention of this maneuver is to halt permanently our services to renters.
The people we serve
In just the past few weeks, the Renters Alliance has received desperate complaints from renters who fear losing their homes. One renter has received four summonses to housing court for failure to pay rent despite the fact that her landlord cashed her rent checks prior to their due date and prior to the date sworn in summonses by her landlord’s attorneys. Each time she went to housing court, she was informed that her case had been dismissed. Since her apartment complex is near the planned Purple Line development, she fears that the landlord may be trying to harass residents into leaving in order to raise rents.
Another tenant cannot get her property manager to fix dangerously neglected elevators that have gone un-inspected with floors of plywood in a building occupied by over 100 seniors and disabled. She has been trapped in the elevators and required the fire department to extricate her. She has been told by her property manager that if she doesn’t like her building’s services, she can just move out.
In a north County complex, a tenant—and Viet Nam veteran and retiree—is being forced from his home for complaining about shoddy building maintenance and demanding that the landlord compensate his family for damage to his property when cut-rate repairmen ruined his furniture with sprayed chemicals from his ceiling fan. Although he received compensation, the landlord the next day told him to leave. He was informed he is a “problem tenant.”
In a senior building in downtown Silver Spring, the property manager’s “Weekly Newsletter” threatened tenants with eviction if found dozing in the community chairs.
In buildings across Montgomery County we are seeing renters priced out of their homes, children being forced to change schools when their families must move, fearful tenants afraid to ask for, much less demand, promised and required services including maintenance, heat and hot water, vermin and mold removal, refusal to return security deposits without cause, shifting utility costs on top of rent increases, threats to evict without cause, landlords and property managers entering private homes without due notice or cause, and abusive and negligent communications.
What the future holds for Montgomery County renters
The County’s renter population has grown from 25% in 2008, to 32.4% in 2010 and on to upwards of 36% in 2013, according to Census data, and rental housing construction continues at a hurried pace. The voice of renters will not be silenced. Renters are citizens of this County, paying taxes and deserving to participate in the social, economic and political life of their communities.
As a result of our work and the growing population of renters, County Executive Isiah Leggett stated in his 2013 “State of the County Address” that renters deserve a voice and will always have a voice in his administration. The County Council should listen to that voice.
Despite threats from wealthy property owners and fund finagling by some County Council, the Renters Alliance will continue to offer advice, counsel, services and a sympathetic ear to citizens who rely on us as an advocate for them and their families.
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