This story was corrected on May 28, 2013. An explanation follows the story.
Almost one-third of all Montgomery County residents are renters, said Matthew Losak, the executive director of Montgomery County Renters Alliance, but they are underrepresented in policy decisions.
Losak told the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board at a meeting on Monday that renters in the county don’t have as much protection as in other areas with high numbers of renters. Montgomery County Renters Alliance is a nonprofit organization, founded in 2011, dedicated to advancing renters rights and security.
“Montgomery County is no longer a ‘house and garden’ county,” Losak said.
Ten years ago, less than 10 percent of the county’s residents were renters, he said. Five years ago, it was up to 25 percent.
“Now, you’ve got over 300,000 people living in rental housing. These units are people’s homes, not just a way station,” he said.
There are professional advocacy, or lobbying, groups representing business, landlord and developer interests before the County Council, but there is no such corresponding renters’ rights group, Losak said.
Losak said renters might be afraid to complain about basic problems, such as lack of heat, malfunctioning air conditioners or basic sanitation problems.
The county has its own office of landlord-tenant affairs, which fields about 9,000 calls for help each year through the county’s MC 311 program, said Rosie McCray-Moody, who works in the office. The program was created to provide information for landlords and tenants, with the bulk of its clients being tenants, she said. The office can help renters understand what rights they have in certain situations, and how they can pursue them with the county.
But with rental housing, there must be laws to protect renters, Losak said, otherwise you risk instability in neighborhoods.
Renters are not necessarily people who cannot afford to buy. They might rent to be closer to work or the Metro, to downsize after the kids have grown or to stay flexible in case of job changes.
Losak talked about the Chevy Chase apartment building called 4701 Willard as an example of a place many renters consider a long-term home, not a way station.
The building — formerly called the Irene after former Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s wife — was sold to Equity Residential in 2011. The Chicago-based firm immediately raised the rents 5 percent, Losak said. New leases will be based on what the market can bear.
Marty McKenna, a spokesman for Equity Residential, confirmed that new renters would pay market rate, but said increases in renewed leases are about 2 to 4 percent.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Rosie McCray-Moody’s affiliation and incorrectly stated which agency receives 9,000 calls for help each year.