Urban Housing Policy And Those Stupid Natural History Facts: The DOPA And TOPA Edition

Attempts to lower urban housing costs seem to come in two flavors:

1. BUILD MOAR.

2. Rent control.

However, D.C. has two pretty good alternatives, known as DOPA:

Here’s the thing–D.C. has a very good legal structure to preserve affordable housing, the District Opportunity to Purchase Act (‘DOPA’; boldface mine):

In February 2008, Marion Barry, then the chairman of the D.C. Council Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs, introduced a bill to help preserve affordable housing in the District. If a property owner was going to sell an apartment building that was home to low-income residents and put affordable housing at risk, the legislation stipulated, the District would have the chance to step in and buy it in order to keep those apartments affordable.

“If we are serious about preserving our affordable housing stock we must take an active and aggressive role in doing so,” Barry said in introducing the measure. The bill, known as the District Opportunity to Purchase Act, or DOPA, passed the Council unanimously six months later and became law that Christmas Eve.

Unfortunately, D.C. never uses this law. On the other hand, D.C. does have the TOPA Act, which can do some good (boldface mine):

TOPA gives tenants’ associations the right to refuse contracted sales of their buildings and to purchase them instead for the contracted sale prices….

When residential property is sold in D.C. landlords are required to give tenants a TOPA Notice, or Offer of Sale, which informs them that they may refuse the sale and purchase the property instead for the contracted sale price.

Tenants must then incorporate as a tenants’ association, if one does not already exist, and submit a letter of interest within 45 days of receiving the offer of sale. The tenants association can then request information from the landlord including floor plans, itemized operating expenses, utility rates, capital expenditures for the previous 2 years, a recent rent roll, and a list of vacant apartments.

The tenants’ association then has a 120 day period to exercise their right of first refusal and negotiate to purchase the property. If the tenants’ association signs a contract with a deposit they have an additional 120 days to secure financing. After the purchase is complete the tenants’ association can convert to condominium or co-operative or remain rental.

This policy isn’t be good as DOPA, since the poor and lower-income people will be highly unlikely to pull this off. But it does help middle-class people retain affordable housing in cities (I mena middle-class in the true sense of the phrase, not those who are upper-middle or gentry class). Here’s another advantage:

…TOPA gives tenants market power during gentrification. Lots of people benefit from gentrification, but tenants aren’t usually among them. Cities get increased tax revenue. Landlords sell aging building for big profits. Developers turn disinvested buildings into luxury housing with price tags to match. Tenants, by contrast, are usually forced out of their homes. TOPA changes that by giving tenants market power. They can buy their units and build equity, take buyouts and use them to pay down debt or build up savings, or stay rental and negotiate with their development partner for building improvements. For once, tenants don’t get the short end of the stick.

Cities should adopt these programs (and D.C. should fucking implement DOPA). It would be far more productive than the NIMBY versus YIMBY versus rent control battles that are constantly fought.

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