Tenants’ rights vary in our region, including whether renters have the first “right of refusal” to buy the property when a landlord decides to sell. That’s the case under current D.C. law, but a new plan is underway to exclude renters in single-family homes from this option. Realtors, and others who support the exemption, say that the change will encourage more people to rent out rooms or basement apartments. But housing advocates argue the proposal will drive house flipping and exacerbate current affordability issues. Kojo explores the debate over the Tenant Opportunity To Purchase Act.

Guests

  • Martin Austermuhle Reporter, WAMU; Former Editor-In-Chief, DCist; @maustermuhle.
  • Colin Johnson Real estate broker and former president of the D.C. Area Realtors Association
  • Rob Wohl Tenant Organizing Manager with the Latino Economic Development Center

Comments We Couldn't Get To On Air

Listeners flooded our call lines, sent us reams of emails, and tweeted throughout the show to share thoughts on both sides of the issue. We could only get to a small fraction of your (very strong) opinions, so we’ve compiled some of them below: 

“Tenants are helping pay mortgages and other costs associated with owning a home. Why shouldn’t they seek compensation for moving expenses and security deposit elsewhere?” – Amber

“TOPA is the most discriminatory, predatory, antiquated, subversive ‘law’ on the books in DC and that’s saying a lot.  No other law has negatively impacted the inventory of affordable housing in DC as homeowners would rather sell outright than to use their home/units as rentals in DC now.” – Scott

The D.C. Council’s current proposal “is not a TOPA fix. It’s not remotely a scalpel; this is a wrecking ball. Actual fixes are possible and have been presented. Clearly the realtors are chasing their own interests at the expense of DC tenants. …The D.C. Council torpedoed this process. The bill presented during the public hearing looks nothing like this. I would have given public testimony if it there had actually been a democratic process and Chairman Mendelson weren’t acting like a Council tyrant.”  – Hannah

“I bought my first home under TOPA over 20 years ago and for most of the time since have been a landlord without any issues. I am sad to see a law that gave me a start in this city rolled back.” – Mark

“We at Manna just helped a family close through single family TOPA last week! All the problems realtors raise could be dealt with without taking away protections for our clients–exemptions for accessory dwelling units and shorter timelines protect landlords and let tenants become homeowners.” – Manna DC

“I have lived in three single family homes since I moved to DC. The first was owned by the owner of a real estate company. The second owners lived out of town and I met one of them, once, in two years living there. I deserve my TOPA rights.” – Hannah

“I’m a REALTOR in DC. In some cases, TOPA is perverted to become a legal extortion plan (e.g. a nephew lives for free in what was grandma’s house, won’t get out until he has it in writing that $100,000 of proceeds divert to him). That’s extortion and it’s unfair to those willed the home.” – Heather

“TOPA is just extortion. Leave it for large buildings when the whole building is being sold. Drop it for houses and buildings with fewer than 10 units.” – Nick

“TOPA rights are 38 years old! What is so wrong with paying displaced tenants to move? Moving is expensive. Is this the beginning of the end for rent control and all tenants rights in DC? … The real estate lobby is not going to stop with just getting rid of single family. This bill is the beginning of the end for tenant’s rights in DC.” – Lisa Marie  

“Tenants’ opportunity to purchase reminds me of rent-control, a measure that aims at increasing the supply of affordable housing but that proves counterproductive in practice. I can tell you this with great confidence: The idiom for tenants’ right to buy in case of landlords’ wishing to sell properties—and for others’ equivalent right, however acquired—is not ‘first right of refusal’ but ‘right of first refusal.'” – Pat

“I’m a Ward 4 homeowner; I rent out part of my home and I support TOPA. Renters should have the first right to purchase or support to move.  Buying a house in DC is hard! Especially for first time homebuyers – which in all likelihood would include nearly everyone renting a house. Developers currently have a huge advantage in buying single family homes. When I tried to buy a house, I lost four offers to developers. In every case, I was willing to pay more money, but the developer won out because they could close faster. TOPA works to level the playing field just a bit, to prevent displacement, and to create a fair move out process when needed. I’m so disappointed in the councilmembers who voted for this. What lazy legislating! Of course fixes are needed but don’t throw out the whole law related to single family TOPA instead of working to fix it.” – Farrah

“A lot of single family tenants quietly buy homes from landlords directly. This is partly due to TOPA incentives. If TOPA is repealed. the incentive is removed and it will be open season on kicking out tenants and flipping the house!” – Daniel

“Currently, investors are wary of purchasing an investment property in DC because of TOPA laws. Also, homeowners who choose to move out of their condos and single family homes are wary of renting out their homes due to TOPA laws, and instead sell right away. I’m currently a licensed realtor in MD, used to be licensed in DC and have owned rental properties. I would never want to be a landlord in DC under current TOPA laws.” – Pamela

“If tenants had a much shorter time to say “Yes” or “No,” wouldn’t that help the problem? And then a shorter time to complete the purchase, not to hold the owner’s sale in purgatory for so long?” – Sarah

“TOPA=legalized extortion in DC.” – Tara

“I understand the issue of tenants of, say, basement apartments in single-family units, and the potential for holding up the owners’ sale rights or give the tenant too much economic leverage over the owner. But exempting ALL single-family homes from TOPA makes no sense. Owners are not overly inconvenienced if the tenants of the whole house want to exercise a right of first refusal.  We rented out a small townhouse when living abroad, and wanted to sell it when we returned to DC with a child and needed more space. We went through the process of listing the house and, at the last minute, our tenant decided to exercise his rights to purchase. Big deal. We got the same money for the house, although TOPA slightly delayed the settlement. What is the argument that this is not a legitimate use of the tenant’s rights?” – Bill

“The real problem with lack of affordable housing is the outrageously tenant friendly laws in DC. We have a space that we had hoped to generate a little extra money for us but is sitting completely empty right now. We are just fearful of renting to tenants, especially low income tenants in the city because the laws will do everything to protect tenants. It is near impossible to evict a bad tenant and will cost a fortune. It can bankrupt a landlord. No thanks, we will take the loss until DC makes it easier to evict dishonest tenants.” – Sebastien

“My family and I used TOPA. We’ve been in DC for a decade and had rented the whole time. We had a newborn baby and our landlord (an investor from California who hadn’t lived in DC for over a decade) wanted to evict us to flip our house in Petworth. TOPA was our only way to have a say on when we departed, even being able to afford the move because we had thousands of dollars tied up in a security deposit and a first month’s rent. We would’ve purchased the house, but our landlord deliberately made a TOPA offer of sale far beyond the value of the house in order to get maximum profit out of his sale – which he could by flipping.” – Evan

“Why is this bill being considered right now? TOPA has been around for more than 30 years — how is it just now broken? Have tenants somehow gotten more savage in recent years? It sounds to me like TOPA is working just like it should – to provide tenants extra protections to continue renting and an opportunity for homeownership. In my opinion, there is a push to remove TOPA now because of the huge amounts of money to be made in DC through house flipping, which wasn’t true years ago.” – Amber

“If someone is renting a privately owned property, there is no guarantee you can live there forever. That is part of renting. Why do a tenant’s rights trump my rights as a homeowner? Also, what is the definition of ‘affordable housing’ that people keep talking about? If I rent my house, it will be for market rent, is that considered affordable?” – Stacey  

“I’m devastated by the uninformed actions of the Council this week. DC has one of the most inflated, overpriced sellers’ markets in the country. Why did members gut the only tangible shield tenants need to stay in DC based on the crocodile tears of a booming real estate industry that consistently pockets recordbreaking sales? I just moved out after exercising TOPA because the owner still put the place on the market and got an unreasonably high offer I chose to waive. I took the allotted period to research my options, realized it wasn’t  a good deal and left without asking anything of the buyer. No drama.” – Gretchen

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