New Legislation Proposed to Curb DC TOPA Payouts

What to Know

  • An I-Team investigation found DC tenants can hold homes for hostage for payouts and block sales by exploiting a law meant to protect renters

A D.C. legislator introduced a new bill to limit payments under the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) after a News4 I-Team investigation of the decades-old law.

In a series of reports, the I-Team showed how the law meant to protect renters can be exploited to drag out home sales.

Some renters simply refuse to sign over their rights to buy the place they live, instead holding out to sell those rights to the highest bidder. The high-dollar payouts have reached into the tens of thousands of dollars.

"Significant controversy has arisen whether TOPA is being misused by some tenants to exact large amounts of money," Councilwoman Anita Bonds told her D.C. Council colleagues.

The proposed bill would cap TOPA payouts at $1,500, but only for tenants in one very narrow sliver of impacted situations: Those where the renter lives in an attached property of a single family home, along with the homeowner.

The bill does not address homes held hostage by tenants who rent an entire home or part of a home when the owner lives elsewhere.

D.C.'s Association of Realtors President Colin Johnson calls the legislation a baby step toward keeping tenants from holding homes hostage but says the proposal doesn't go far enough.

"Any conversation about correcting TOPA is a good start," Johnson said. "It's concerning that this was how they approached this."

The D.C. Association of Realtors says the proposed legislation, as written, does not fix the problem. The group proposed legislation to eliminate TOPA rights in all single family home sales.

"I can definitively say this does not correct, it would actually probably complicate," said Johnson of Bonds' proposal.

Bonds acknowledged her bill doesn't go far enough, calling it "the beginning of the process."

"This is our starting point. It's really to begin the dialogue," she said.

The current law, which promises payouts to tenants, does not define what a tenant is -- and the new bill doesn't, either.

TOPA doesn't require a lease, or payment of rent, so an intern who stayed in a home for a few weeks, a caregiver for a sick relative, even squatters and Airbnb guests have gotten paid for TOPA rights.

The original TOPA law was designed to protect affordable housing and keep renters from being displaced by developers and gentrification.

Now a whole industry of "TOPA chasers" has sprung up across the District, which Bonds says the law never intended, and she wants to fix it.

"People have taken advantage of it," said Bonds, adding that she believes the language in her new bill will likely change before the council votes on it as early as this fall.

The D.C. Council is planning to hold a public hearing in July so interested parties can weigh in.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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