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Q&A: Dean Hunter Leading Small Landlords Against ‘Anti-Landlord’ Policies


The Small Multifamily & Rental Owners Association (SMOA) is a trade group representing the interests of small rental property owners (those owning 50 units or less), and managers in Washington, D.C., and its neighboring Maryland suburbs.

SMOA was founded by Dean Hunter, a lawyer and commercial real estate broker with Keller Williams’ commercial small multifamily group. During his career, Hunter has worked in legislative affairs at both the local and federal level, and is also a small landlord.

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In D.C., like most urban areas of the country, most of the rental housing is provided by small landlords. In fact, about 40 percent of D.C.’s 207,400 rental units are single-family homes or condominiums owned by individuals, according to Hunter.

Furthermore, of the approximately 123,000 units in apartment buildings, almost half are in buildings with 20 units or less, owned by individual small landlords. 

SMOA was founded in 2020 to help the interests of these small multifamily asset owners, at a time when local governments were advancing tenant-protection policies that Hunter felt were untenable. 

Hunter recently spoke to Commercial Observer about what SMOA does and why it was needed at this time. 

What was the genesis of The Small Multifamily & Rental Owners Association and when did it start?

Dean Hunter: SMOA was launched in the spring of 2020 a few months into the COVID pandemic and eviction moratorium. The organization was founded by small rental property owners, property managers, real estate agents and lawyers who saw the need to form an organization to push back on the anti-housing provider legislative and regulatory policies of the D.C. Council. 

Why do you feel something like this was needed?

Even though most of the rental housing is provided by small landlords, the District regulates all housing providers the same. They regulate the elderly couple that owns a four-unit building the same as if they are a multinational real estate investment trust.

Government anti-provider policies and regulations have a disproportionate adverse impact on small providers because they are not as well capitalized. The dollars that are taken from small landlords is money that would be used to put food on the table, impacting the ability and quality of retirement of a couple, and lessens their ability to pay for college for their kids.

There has long been a need for a voice for small landlords. SMOA doesn’t just advocate for small housing providers; we educate and organize them to speak out on the government policies impacting them. Small housing providers are not lobbyists; most have full-time day jobs. SMOA is making them aware and empowering them to fight to protect their interests.

The major advocacy group for housing providers in the city primarily caters to the interest of large institutional providers. These companies are far better capitalized to deal with the anti-provider policies coming out of the D.C. Council. 

Moreover, the people that run these large companies have high-paying jobs and don’t want to rock the boat. We would rather turn the boat over than sit by quietly and allow tenant activists to dictate rental housing policy.  

Who are its members and leadership?

While SMOA caters to the interests of small housing providers, its membership comprises small and large landlords and property management companies. Large providers realize that they benefit from the advocacy of small providers and are smart to support the effort. SMOA has a database of over 2,000 small landlords and property managers. SMOA has an advisory board consisting of small and large property owners and managers.

I’m CEO. Rich Bianco is general counsel. Bianco is the principal of The Bianco Law Group, a boutique firm specializing in litigation on behalf of residential and commercial property owners. He is also a small rental property owner. Then there’s Christopher Wallis, chairman of the advisory board. Wallis recently retired after working 35 years as the CEO of The Fred A. Smith Company, which manages over 260 small apartment buildings.

In what ways do things need to improve, and what are you doing to help?

We need to elect and educate public officials on how policies, while well intended, such as rent control, TOPA (Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act), and rewriting our eviction and tenant screening laws, are having an adverse impact on the availability of affordable housing. SMOA endorses candidates for elective office, and we mobilize our members to help elect business-friendly candidates.

We also need more housing providers and property managers to get involved.  

The Office of the Tenant Advocate in D.C. has a government-funded budget of $5 million, and we need the support of larger housing providers and management companies. SMOA is increasing its recruitment and member services now that the siege of the eviction moratorium is over.  

Can you cite some early action that made a difference?

SMOA had over 3,000 small property managers and landlords email the D.C. Council and mayor during the extreme and overly broad eviction moratorium. We have changed the narrative in the media and in local government to include small housing providers. As a result of our aggressive advocacy, we are now at the table before government officials on matters that impact providers from writing rent-control regulations to revising the payment rates for housing vouchers.

What is coming in terms of things that you will be doing — anything pressing this summer?

We are very excited about our goals for the rest of the year. SMOA is producing a documentary about being a small housing provider in the District. The film will show how government policies are adversely impacting the availability of affordable housing in the District by driving small providers out of the business. The movie title is “Not a Rich Person’s Problem,” and will be released early next year.

We are working with the Pacific Legal Foundation to explore litigation on behalf of providers who were harmed by the District’s eviction moratorium. We are determined to ensure that the D.C. government pays for its illegal and aggressive taking of the rights of owners during the moratorium. If you are a provider who was harmed by the eviction moratorium, we want to hear your story.  

We are running small landlords and property managers for Advisory Neighborhood Commission seats in the District. We have expanded our organizing activity into Montgomery County, Maryland, to fight rent control and into Prince Geroge’s County to combat harmful legislation.

It is our plan to move from defense to offense. SMOA is developing legislative reform proposals to bring to our local elected officials rather than allowing the well-funded tenant lobby to control the agenda.

We have launched a nonprofit arm of the association, Small Landlords Matter. We are hosting our first annual golf tournament to benefit the nonprofit on Sept. 26. 

What do you believe will be the long-term impact of the work you do?

We are a public interest organization dedicated to supporting housing providers. SMOA is in this fight for the long haul. We plan to aggressively grow our membership and increase our resources. We will influence the election of officials who support small business and will stand up to special interests. SMOA will change the practice of regulating small providers the same as large corporations. 

We will empower our members to maximize their profits and grow wealth. In only two years, SMOA has become one of the most powerful real estate trade groups in the region. We have only just begun to fight. Our nonprofit, Small Landlords Matter, will be active on the national level.  

Keith Loria can be reached at Kloria@commercialobserver.com