TOPA: he-said, she-said

TOPA… where’s the cream filling?

DATA: THAT's the stuff!!!

DATA: THAT’s the stuff!!!

Something is missing in all of this talk about TOPA… data.

A hearing was held this past Thursday mulling over a change to the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which gives tenants a chance to match any offer by a third party looking to buy the tenants’ home. It’s one of DC’s best tenant protections, as well as a crucial way in which renters can become owners of their homes, and any attempt to change or weaken it is understandably met with considerable alarm.

But on Thursday, one of the most alarming things was the lack of cohesive data that either side could agree on. Data leads to facts, and facts should inform laws.

The change to TOPA currently being proposed is, on the surface, relatively minor—tenant advocates and the DC Association of Realtors (DCAR) have agreed on fixes to speed the TOPA process for single family homes, and both sides feel they’re close to reaching an agreement on tenants’ option to assign their TOPA rights to a third party (also just focusing on single family homes). However, the testimony went well beyond that, and the chair of the Council made ominous claims** towards a larger fight over TOPA.

In the hearing, Councilmember Anita Bonds (At-Large), who introduced the bill, and Chairman Phil Mendelson asked the realtors testifying from DCAR about how many successful buyouts  have occurred in their experience with cases involving TOPA.

The anecdotal remarks led to differences in the magnitude of 10x- from .5% to 5%.

Magnitudes of 10

Magnitudes of 10

The same questions posed to the legal counsel for tenants also produced questionable data. One of the tenant advocates testifying retorted that a tenant with good enough credit to execute TOPA rights isn’t seeking those in the legal counsel that were testifying at this hearing, implying that these questions about successful cases were anecdotal at best, and ridiculous to be putting on the record.

It should be noted that the metrics for which we evaluate TOPA depend on whether we define “success” as the tenants succeeding in purchasing their unit, “succeeding” at staying in their unit as a tenant, or “succeeding” by leveraging their TOPA rights so that they can see some small benefit from their displacement.

The fault is perhaps with the city for not tracking data on rental units in general, and those employing TOPA rights being an especially important aspect of that in this case. Due to obscure facts, those lobbying on both sides are putting forth data that supports their case, instead of being able to lay a factual foundation.

"I heard it through the grapevine, and I'm just about to lose my mind"

“I heard it through the grapevine, and I’m just about to lose my mind”

For the most innovative and impactful legislation that DC has to empower tenants, I am stupefied by the lack of data.

Here is an example of the data that I would like to see before changes are made:

The change to TOPA being discussed has the potential to effect _____ property owners and ______ tenants.

 

** Chairman Phil Mendelson went as far as encouraging “a flat-out exemption to single-family homes,” which was well beyond the scope of the legislative hearing

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