At a Montgomery County Council public forum held last week to discuss rent control in the county and possible alternatives, tenants favored extension of the law while landlords favored allowing it to expire Dec. 31 as scheduled.
The current law is two years old and links rent increases to utility cost increases and the consumer price index. The county is expected to decide in the fall whether to extend the law.
About 13 percent of the 46,700 licensed apartment units in the county are not covered by the law. Those units include those decontrolled because they have been vacated and single-family detached dwellings, row houses and townhouses not part of a centrally managed property.
John O'Neill, executive director of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington said. "There is no good rent control law. If you ask me if I would rather be shot or bung. I'm going to be dead either way so it doesn't really matter."
On the other side of the issue were tenants like Phil Ochs who lives in Rockville and testified with other members of the Montgomery Tenants Association. "Rent control not only benefits low income households, it protects a substantial portion of our county's middle class from the ravages of excessive rent increases . . . The lifting of rent controls would be a capricious and unfair action towards our tenant citizenry," he said.
Landlords said that the major reason they favor ending rent control is that it is making it harder to finance new apartments and that it causes profits to drop.
"We have struggled with rent control over the years. We have seen our profits dwindle to the point of non existence . . . We feel that the basic provisions of tenants rights are adequately covered in existing state and local laws," said Fred Bartlett, who said he manages rental properties in the county and in Reston. Va.
Bartlett said that his firm has no problems getting loans to build apartments in Reston but was "flatly refused" money for further investment in Montgomery County.
"The reason was the uncertainty of the investment vis a vis rent control," he said. "The lender did not want to be in a position of having to take back a building saying. 'If you can't make it, we can't make it either.'"
But tenants argued that any such problems in Montgomery County are due to the sewer moratorium that has been in effect in parts of the county since 1970.
Jerry Cornfeld of Glenmont parks said. "The problem is the sewer moratorium, not rent control. Where there is sewer capacity there is growth."
When asked for suggestions about possible alternatives to rent control tenants suggested cooperative apartments, where the tenants would own the buildings, and rent subsidies. Tenants emphasized, however, that they believe rent control is the only viable, short-term alternative.
David Sears, of the Rosemary Village Tenants Association in Silver Spring, said, "It is very clear that rent control should be extended for a limited period of time." He mentioned cooperatives as a viable alternative but said, "It takes time. If a decision was made today, at best it would take 18 months before the purchase."
Persons representing landlords were in favor of an alternative that would be paid for by public funds.
Bartlett said that landlords recognize that finding affordable decent housing for moderate income persons is a problem. "However, the solution of this problem is not ours alone to bear," he added.
"If the county designates this as a priority item then let the county use its resources to deal with the problem and all the citizens will bear a portion of the burden in meeting the housing needs of moderate income families," Bartlett said. He said the county should explore further acquiring existing buildings to be used as rentals or converted to cooperatives.