The Socialist Case for TOPA

THE TENANT OPPORTUNITY TO PURCHASE ACT or TOPA is an essential tenants’ right that was enshrined into law in the District of Columbia in 1980, shortly after the establishment of home rule. Technically speaking, TOPA requires that building owners give tenants in apartment buildings the opportunity to purchase their housing or assign the right to another entity. Tenants can exercise this right to buy the building from the  owner directly and convert it into a co-op or they can negotiate an assignment of this right with potential buyers around building conditions and other matters. In plain terms, TOPA guarantees renters a seat at the table in the conversations around the sale of their homes. As the District faces its fourth wave of gentrification, this right provides a way for tenants to ensure housing stability. 

Unfortunately, TOPA has seen recent erosion, first with the exemption of single family homes in 2018, then with the use of last year’s Budget Support Act to exempt new office-to-residential conversions from TOPA for 10 years. Now, there are indications that the developer lobby (including Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners, District of Columbia Building Industry Association (DCBIA), and Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers (HAND))  are pushing the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the office of Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) to further gut this right.

The District of Columbia is the only major municipality in the United States to have legislation like TOPA. This legislation was one of a series of anti-displacement policies put into place by a newly restored and radical DC Council in the late 70s and early 80s, in response to working class agitation following an early wave of gentrification and mass evictions. In its 40+ year history, TOPA has been used to preserve the District’s affordable housing stock, improve housing conditions and curb displacement. In an important study conducted by the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED), which was commissioned and funded by the DC Council, CNHED found that between 2006 and 2020, “16,224 affordable units were developed or preserved through TOPA,” including 771 units that were purchased as tenant cooperatives (a total of 29 co-ops). In this period, Ward 8 had 4,151 affordable units developed or preserved, 1,480 units more than Ward 4, the ward with the second highest count (2,671). The implication of the preservation of these units through TOPA is that members of the working class already living in those apartments were able to remain in their communities as neighborhoods changed and shifted around them — providing them with the power to have a say in what this looked like.

Table from CNHED's "Sustaining Affordability" report, demonstrating the amount of residential rental units have been added or preserved through right purchases.

CNHED further found that TOPA “enabled the formation of more than 425 tenant associations” in this period. As part of the TOPA process, tenants have a seat in negotiations and can secure agreements in binding property assignments to address quality of life concerns. CNHED determined that there were 14,993 units in properties where renovations or repairs were included in Tenant Development Agreements or purchases. Between securing affordability and addressing conditions issues, TOPA serves as an important vehicle to blunt the effects of gentrification, such as fortifying the working class of these communities against pressures of displacement. To quote CNHED at length: “TOPA’s impact on maintaining diversity in gentrifying neighborhoods is noteworthy. By allowing tenants to remain in expensive areas through co-op purchases or partnerships with developers, the program counterbalances the trend of displacement due to gentrification by retaining housing units where tenants negotiate TOPA deals, which can also be a boon for racial equity, particularly in areas like Ward 8.” 

While the data tells the broad story of success, individual cases of tenants organizing and exercising their TOPA rights highlight the power of TOPA. For example, long-time tenants in the Congress Heights Metro Project were able to use TOPA to avoid the demolition of their homes and secure a deal to build 179 new affordable units adjacent to the property. This was the result of over half a decade of organizing against notable slumlord, Sanford Capital, who attempted first to cajole the tenants into leaving through substantial buyout offers, and then force them out through extreme disinvestment and intimidation tactics. Events culminated in an attempt by Sanford Capital and developer CityPartners to subvert the tenants’ TOPA rights, leading to a successful lawsuit. These courageous tenants used TOPA as a point of organization and used their collective strength to force the building owner to submit, enlisting the Attorney General’s support, which eventually led to the forced removal of this slumlord from the District writ large. 

In another example, the primarily Latine tenants of Buena Vista Apartments are taking ownership of their property through the successful exercise of their TOPA rights. These tenants had been intentionally subjected to heinous conditions in an attempt by their slumlord Peter Burnell and Urban Investment Partners (UIP) Property Management to force them out. After an extensive campaign to push for improvements in housing conditions, including a rent strike, UIP was forced to put the property on the market. The tenants exercised their TOPA rights, and are now working together to convert the property into a limited-equity cooperative, which will stabilize the community for decades to come. As members of a limited-equity cooperative, tenants will have the opportunity to self-govern, and control conditions and affordability of their own housing for the stability and health of their community, rather than lining the pockets of yet another corporate landlord.

TOPA is a RIGHT, not a program

Importantly, and contrary to the framing of CNHED and other organizations and individuals in the orbit of the DC government, TOPA is not a program. It is a right of every tenant in buildings with two or more units in the District of Columbia. Much of this right's  history of success is due to meaningful public investment in programs and financing tools that prop up a housing ecosystem that must be responsive to the needs of its residents.

For years, the efficacy of this right and these tools has been challenged by the powerful developer lobby, and under Mayor Bowser’s government, this lobby has finally had its day in the sun. There does not appear to be any interest in the DC government to appropriately prioritize the funding of programs designed to facilitate the successful exercise of this right by tenants. A look into the Mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget is sufficient to show the executive’s thoughts and intentions. Under Community Development, the line item for Housing Counseling is seeing a reduction of nearly $5 million. This line item “provides funding for counseling services to tenants,” including technical support for the exercise of the TOPA right. The vehicle used to fund initiatives to build and maintain affordable housing, the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), is being gutted, as the Mayor requests a 41% decrease in funding, dropping the fund below $100 million for the first time in its history. The loan program designed to assist tenants in self-purchase (called First Right Purchase Program or FRPP loans) was functionally discontinued around 2018 and there is no evidence that this program will be revived. Furthermore, there has been no action taken to close loopholes that allow developers to circumvent the TOPA process to their own benefit. 

To exacerbate issues, not only are developers, landlords, and associated lobbying groups working to ensure that DHCD continues to deprioritize the various tools and programs that support tenant purchase or tenant-directed development, they are also applying pressure to chip away at TOPA. Their complaints are largely based on concerns that the TOPA process delays sales and claims that TOPA disincentivizes investment in the District. To any casual observer of Washington, DC through the urban renewal of the last 20 years, this is clearly not the case. TOPA has been the law of the land through this entire spate of development.

Nevertheless, these lobbying groups were successful in convincing the Council of the veracity of their concerns twice in recent history. In 2018, they managed to secure a carve-out from TOPA for single-family homes and in last year’s budget cycle, the Council passed a provision in the Budget Support Act greenlighting a decade long exemption for office to housing conversions, a slightly watered down version of an exemption originally pitched by the Bowser administration. Only two council members stood against this most recent exemption - DSA endorsed Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. Now, these lobbying groups are gearing up to further erode our rights, with a number of targets. As reported by The Washington Informer, DHCD is being lobbied for exemptions to buildings that are 25 years or newer and buildings receiving government support through rental assistance programs. At the same time, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (under the oversight of Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie) is exploring another expansion of TOPA exemptions for residential developments Downtown at the behest of the Downtown DC and Golden Triangle business improvement districts’ presidents Gerren Price and Leona Agouridis. It’s incredibly rare that the working class gets the inside track on these kinds of lobbying efforts, and reporting around this should be taken very seriously. In fact, given that the above explainer deck from DMPED was published earlier this year and given that they moved similar exemptions through the budget last year, it is possible that action around TOPA shifted the political calculus for the Mayor as they were gearing up to release their FY25 budget, seeing as how no TOPA exemptions are included.

The Socialist case for TOPA

So, why should socialists care? On the face of it, this right may look simply like a vehicle for shuffling properties around from one landlord to another, especially given the underfunding of co-op programs. Since we see housing as a human right, it’s tempting to approach laws like TOPA as wonky and reformist window dressing on what is essentially the maintenance of housing as a commodity for exchange.

To these critiques, we should turn to conditions on the ground as they actually exist. In addition to the outcomes listed above, which show that TOPA materially improves the lives of District tenants through the preservation and development of affordable housing in the District, it’s important to note that as a universal right, TOPA creates the conditions and point of agitation for meaningful organizing efforts as well as (admittedly limited) opportunity for the democratization of the development of DC.

How often do we see the opportunity for organizing and agitation enshrined into law as part of a process? While TOPA was clearly intended as a way to promote homeownership, in practice it has turned into a collective bargaining tool. TOPA is one of the only mechanisms in the District that actually forces landlords to recognize and negotiate with tenant organizations.

In short, TOPA serves as a vehicle for the working class to come together, identify shared priorities and advocate for better from their landlord. Sure, the majority of the tenant associations formed during the TOPA process may not be militant, but their existence and the opportunity for their development through the TOPA process allows for the potential of militancy. This potential has been seized by our Stomp Out Slumlords working group multiple times in buildings across the District. Furthermore, TOPA provides a process through which a future Social Housing program could receive enthusiastic support and buy-in from tenants. Finally, though the cooperatives established through the TOPA process are not revolutionary on their own, they provide a rare opportunity for working people to learn to administer the economy while removing the opportunity to generate excess profit that would go straight to shareholder pockets under private ownership models and staff salaries under nonprofit ownership models. 

We can consider the DC government’s orientation towards TOPA as a litmus test for how it responds to tenant needs. We know that Muriel Bowser’s government is an increasingly reactionary and conservative force, and what exemplifies this better than defunding and deprioritizing public programs that allow tenants to develop autonomy over their own homes and communities? Bowser's government has been chipping away at TOPA and its public support for the better part of the last decade, further ingratiating herself with the wealthy development class. Some may view this as a slippery slope argument, but the logic of the big money developer lobbyists is clear and has worked in the past: they can get away with relatively small cuts to this right and to its public supports, piece by piece, until TOPA is functionally dead. The DC government, through ignorance and/or complicity, has been willing to go along with these lobbyists thus far, and we should be concerned that they will be willing to continue to do so moving forward.

Preservation of TOPA is important, not just as a foundational tenant right in the District, but also as a model for efforts across the nation and a vital point of agitation between the rentier capitalist class and workers in our region. It is our duty as socialists, as tenants in DC, and as members of the working class, to defend TOPA against attacks and to organize for the expansion of TOPA and programs that support it.

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