Council Panel Pursues Deal on Rent Control

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006

A D.C. Council committee's vote on strengthening the city's rent control law was postponed yesterday to allow committee members to work out a possible compromise, which could include setting aside some apartments for lower-income tenants.

The compromise would replace a measure proposed by council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the council's Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee. The bill he introduced would greatly tighten limits on the rent increases that landlords can charge when rent-controlled apartments become vacant.

Graham said the increases allowed now are so great that many of the city's 100,000 rent-controlled apartments have been priced out of the reach of moderate-income residents.

Graham's measure is opposed by landlords, who contend that it would discourage maintenance of the city's rental housing.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) this week unveiled a plan that he said offered a middle ground between tenants and landlords. It includes a "means test'' on prospective tenants to direct the benefits of rent control to those who need them most.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he was going to introduce the mayor's package at the committee session yesterday but held off to work with Graham on a compromise.

The centerpiece of the compromise would be a provision setting aside 5 percent of vacant rent-controlled apartments -- in buildings of 20 units or more -- for low-income renters. The rent charged in those apartments could not exceed 30 percent of a tenant's income, and tenants would undergo means-testing to qualify.

The compromise would also abolish the current system of "rent ceilings,'' which limit the amount of rent landlords can charge. Critics of the system say the ceilings are often many times the actual rent, rendering them useless. Graham gave the example of a constituent who pays $1,200 a month for a studio apartment that has a rent ceiling of $4,400.

The current system also is so confusing and so bureaucratic that it takes 22 city workers to shuffle the paperwork, Catania said.

The compromise would cap yearly rent increases at about 10 percent -- except for the elderly or disabled, who would pay an annual cost-of-living increase. Committee member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) suggested that District teachers, too, should pay only the cost-of-living increase.

"We have paused to consider these ideas,'' Graham said yesterday. "There are things about these proposals that are attractive. But I want to think more about abolishing rent ceilings. If we have a situation where 95 percent of rents are way, way below the rent ceilings, it may not be such a serious question.''

Mayoral spokesman Vince Morris welcomed the new discussions. "We appreciate council member Graham's willingness to broaden the rent control debate,'' he said.

There are 140,000 private apartments in the District, according to an association of city landlords. The city's rent control law applies to buildings that have five or more units and were built before 1975.

Representatives of tenants and landlords said they like some aspects of the compromise but want to study it more.

"Maybe we can work with this,'' said Kevin Fitzgerald, a tenant advocate. "The key is getting from noble concept to implementable rules.''

"It's a good beginning,'' said Lucille Coutard, president of the 1611 Park Road Tenants Association.

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, said landlords want to make sure that any rent control revisions do not have unintended consequences.

As for means-testing, he said, building owners support it in principle.

"If you're going to the trouble of implementing a program of rent control,'' he said, "it ought not be for millionaires.''

© 2006 The Washington Post Company