Washington D.C.: America’s capital city and the fourth most expensive rental market in the country. If you’re on the hunt for a new home, you’re likely looking for the most affordable apartments for rent in Washington D.C., right? Rent control is a pretty nice setup in some of America’s major metros, and Washington D.C. renters are among the lucky who can benefit from it. A lot of the usual rent control laws apply here as they do in cities like San Francisco and New York City. Whether you’re a new or veteran renter, here’s what you should know and some tips on finding apartments for rent in Washington D.C. that were blessed with rent control.
The State Renting in Washington D.C.
According to Washington D.C. realtor Angie Garcia, finding apartments for rent in Washington D.C. isn’t complicated — as long as budget isn’t a factor. With rental units starting around $1,500 for the bare bones, and increasing sharply the more amenities you need, finding an affordable apartment can be a real pain.
“It’s not easy for a newcomer on a budget because of the high rental rates,” admits Garcia. “Finding a location that has all the factors a newcomer is looking for: convenience, commute, price, living space, storage space, parking, metro, cool neighborhood, and so on is a difficult task when working on a budget. Eventually the newcomer sacrifices some of their [preferences] to finally get their new place.”
And while that might sound frustratingly similar to a lot of major rental markets plagued with high rent prices, the City has been doing its part to make affordable housing more available. Introducing rent control was one of the first steps.
Overview of Rent Control in D.C.
What Buildings Qualify
Here’s the good news: A majority of rental units in D.C. fall under rent control — more than 60 percent of all rentals. But a surprising number of residents are unaware of how pervasive rent control laws are. Rent control was instituted under the Rental Housing Act of 1985. All rental complexes with four or more units fall under rent control, thanks to this law, with a few notable exceptions. A dwelling is exempt from rent control if:
- It was built after 1975.
- It was vacant when the Act was instated.
- The dwelling is owned by a person not owning more than four rentals.
- It is subsidized by the Government or the District.
How Much Rent Increases Yearly
Basically, if you find apartments for rent in Washington D.C. and they’re in buildings with more than four rental units, and they aren’t new, they’re very likely rent-controlled. All rent increases are based on a yearly adjusted Consumer Price Index (CPI-W), which factors in workers’ wages. This allows the population to keep up with inflation. What does that mean? It means that all rent-controlled units increase in rent each year but by marginally less than newer rentals and other non-rent-controlled units. Landlords can’t increase rent more than 10 percent each year. But for most tenants, the average yearly increase is the CPI plus another 2 percent. For disabled or elderly tenants, it’s even lower, with a maximum increase of 5 percent per 12 months.
Exceptions to the Rule
In the case that a unit becomes vacant, the landlord can raise the rent price more than once in the same year. The “vacancy increase” rule allows the landlord to:
- Increase rent by 10 percent more than was charged to the former tenant, or
- Rent it for the price of a comparable rental unit, but the rent hike can’t be more than 30 percent.
There’s also a clause in the Act that allows landlords/property owners to claim hardship. Essentially, if they find themselves unable to make a 12 percent rate of return on the property (with 12-15 months of paper proof of the fact), they can raise the rent to make that 12 percent. Additionally, a property owner can petition to raise the rent to make improvements to the building required by local law. That being said, tenants should stay in the know about whether their landlord is following the legal processes to raise rent. And if you think you might live in a home that falls under rent control but has not been registered, it might be time to file a complaint.
Finding Rent-Controlled Apartments for Rent in Washington D.C.
Section 8 Voucher Program
So you want to get in on this, right? Well, with a 60 percent stock of rent-controlled buildings, your chances aren’t bad. The issues lie in vacancy rates, pricing, and availability in general. If you’re moving to D.C. with little in the bank, you might apply for Section 8, a voucher program for low-income, elderly, or disabled renters. To up your chances of securing a voucher, Washington D.C. realtor Chris Chambers says you’ll have better luck with smaller units if you’re applying for Section 8.
“Unfortunately, in this current market with the increase of rents in the city, the Section 8 Program is way behind the current market rents,” he explains. “There are still one- or two-bedroom properties available on the market. But finding a three-plus bedroom section 8 house is like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Scoping Out the Rent-Controlled Buildings
If you don’t qualify for Section 8, there are still plenty of techniques to finding affordable apartments in D.C. The first step is to do some research before you hit the streets looking. Use D.C.’s affordable housing locator, and see what comes up. Research the neighborhoods, and use a realtor to help with the legwork.
“For a newcomer, I would always recommend using an agent from the city,” Chambers says. “They can give you a real quick ‘street’ view of all the different areas and talk about the pros and cons of certain areas. Also, you can weigh your pros and cons list against your max. budget and the location answer is normally staring right at you.”
And if you already found a place, but aren’t sure if it’s rent-controlled, always ask. The landlord is legally obliged to disclose that information.
Explore Your Options
With low vacancy rates, it may be difficult to secure a rent-controlled apartment from scratch. But you can run into some luck by finding a housemate who already did the dirty work of locking one down and has an open room to fill. Even if it doesn’t have every amenity on your list, locking down an affordable apartment offers you a lot to gain.
“Rent as low as you can find for at least one year,” recommends Garcia. “Get to know the surrounding area (VA, MD), and familiarize yourself with the transit system etc. to know what works for you first-hand. This way you know what you truly have to sacrifice or not for the price.”