In late March I spent a significant amount of time on the phone with the owner of the apartments at 1200 & 1300 Bissell Avenue trying to convince him to hold off on or reduce his scheduled 25% rent increase on tenants there. When we spoke there were two points that he made that I never could dispute. The first was that there was no law on the books preventing his rent increases from going through. The second was basically the classic “everybody else is doing it” argument, he even pointed out one property in Richmond that was increasing rents by more than double his rent increase.
As both of these arguments from the owner of 1300 Bissell make abundantly clear, rent increases are happening all over Richmond, and as of now the city doesn’t have any legal authority to regulate them and to ensure fairness. In addition, a recent report from the Haas Institute showed that the city was already seeing the early signs of displacement and gentrification. Specifically, the report concluded:
“The overall pattern in Richmond is a mixed one of gentrification that is in its early and middle stages in some areas across the center of the city and in North Richmond and near Hilltop, while other areas of the city show no signs of gentrification. The fact that the number of African Americans in Richmond fell by 12,500 between 2000 and 2013, a drop of 35%, is alarming and deserves further analysis. For those concerned with the displacement that accompanies gentrification, this research suggests the city may still be early enough in the process to prevent it from intensifying.”
Preventing the displacement of Richmond residents is an issue that I believe the city has an obligation to address. While tenant protections alone will not achieve this goal, it will likely need to be part of the overall solution. The details of such policies would have to be crafted carefully to avoid the disadvantages often associated with rent control policies in other cities.
To protect tenants while a final policy is developed I proposed the city enact a temporary moratorium on rent increases in Richmond. While this proposal did not win a supermajority vote of the Council, I was pleased when property owners representing over 1,600 rental units in Richmond agreed to voluntarily cap rent increases at 10% while a final policy is developed. It has been estimated that a full rent control policy in Richmond would only impact the tenants of 3,158 units, which means the voluntary cap will provide protection for about half of those tenants.
I am not one who believes this is a simple issue with an obvious answer. I share many of the concerns that some have expressed to implementing a full rent control policy in Richmond. Still, I remain convinced that now is the appropriate time for us to address the issue of gentrification and displacement.
In closing, I would compare the recent Haas Institute report to a diagnosis from a doctor that you are pre-diabetic. The good news being that you don’t have full-blown diabetes, and if you take the right actions (better diet, more exercise) you might be able to avoid it entirely. You probably do not need to start taking insulin shots, but if you do nothing, full blown diabetes is in your future. In my view, that’s where Richmond is right now, determining the appropriate policy will not be easy, but it will be necessary to keep people in their homes.
By: Jael Myrick, Richmond Vice Mayor