Ten months before the law is due to expire, top District of Columbia officials are grappling with the issue of rent control, the city's most controversial piece of legislation.
Some council members are working on ways to phase it out. The city housing director says he's recommended that it be continued but changed. The city's rent administrator says no one really knows what effect it has had on the city. She wants money to study it.
Yesterday, Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), chairman of the House District appropriations subcommittee, opened hearings on rent control's impact on the city tax base, throwing Congress into the already compicated picture and drawing fire for meddling in city affairs.
Tenants and landlords are sharpening their swords for what is expected to be a long, bitter fight.
Tenants want the current law not only continued but strengthened, saying it has helped hundreds of otherwise vulnerable residents remain in the city. Landlords contend it has effectively shut down thousands of apartment units while subsidizing middle-income tenants. It should be ended, they say.
Local officials have found themselves trapped between the arguments.
District housing director Robert L. Moore, who has said he personally doesn't like rent control, said in a recent interview that he has recommended to Mayor Marion Barry that the city continue rent control -- but with modifications.
He wouldn't describe the modifications, since the mayor is reviewing the housing policy. But he did say that, for the most part, those changes would enable landlords with severe money problems to get help faster than they have in the past.
"Everybody would like to phase it out," Moore said of the rent control law. "But we need to increase housing production first . . . The mayor's clear direction is that rent control has problems, but that those who don't have the resources to compete in the market place need protection."
The housing policy proposal that Moore prepared last summer suggested lifting rent control on so-called "luxury" housing -- whose rent levels were not defined. That objective immediately was attacked by tenant groups, and Moore said that recommendation is not included in the final draft of the housing policy.
Several council members said they would support decontrol of luxury units, however, as well as a general phasing out of the current law as other programs to help the poor fall into place.
Six out of 12 council members interviewed indicated that they would like to see some changes in the current law.
"We closely need to look to revision of the rent control legislation," said council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4). "It's been counterproductive. We have lost thousands and thousands of units because of landlords' unwillingness to remain in the business."
Rent control has been debated, attacked and defended for years. Congress granted city officials power to impose it in 1973 -- before the city was granted home rule -- and the city's first rent control law since World War II went into effect in August 1974.
When the current law was extended by council in 1977, landlords criticized it while tenant groups gave it cautions praise.
The law provided controls but allowed landlords some rent increases, ranging from 2 percent to 10 percent the first year, and up to 9.4 percent this year.
To get the fixed increase, landlords file information about their operating expenses with the city's Rental Accommodations Office. If a landlord feels the fixed increase is not enough to give him the 8 percent rate of return on the assessed value of the property that the city allows, he can file a "hardship petition" and ask for higher increases.
With rental units comprising about 68 percent of the District's housing, tenant forces exert considerable influence and haven't hesitated to call press conferences to denounce the council or the mayor. They were instrumental in getting strong legislation approved recently restricting the conversion of rental units to condominiums.
For their part, landlords and developers are among the city's largest political contributions. Political action groups for Washington realtors, D.C. bankers, and Board of Trade members contributed more than $110,000 to political campaigns in the District last year, including at least $45,000 to the mayoral campaign of Barry.
Since the city enacted rent control in 1974, the District has lost 12,600 out of about 188,500 rental apartments and houses, or about 6.7 percent, according to Dorothy Kennison, the city rent administrator appointed by Barry earlier this year.
In addition, about 12 percent of the city's 1970 rental housing stock has been converted to condominiums or is at some stage of the conversion process.
Kennison said she thinks the current rent control law has helped stabilize the city and reduce displacement. But she added in an interview that she has no hard statistics to back her up, and is seeking a research grant to obtain them.
"Without some sound data, it's very, very hard to answer these questions," Kennison said. "Without it, we're all just shooting from the hip."
Kennison said families appear to be doubling up more and more as they are unable to find places to rent or cannot meet the costs of renting in the city, despite rent control.
The polarization of positions was evident at Wilson's hearing, which is scheduled to continue today.
Kennison dismissed some criticisms directed at the current law as "myths" and "ill-founded criticisms." Cities without rent control also have experienced a decline in rental housing, she said.
But John T. O'Neill, the executive vice president of the Apartment and Office building Association, the local landlord trade industry group, contended that rent control has made the rental housing problem worse in the District and challenged some of the statistics city officials provided.
O'Neill said the numbers did not present a full picture of what he called "the most serious crisis in American -- the demise of rental housing."
The Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing, a coalition of 85 community groups, issued a press release objecting to the hearings, charging Wilson with conflict of interest (he owns rental property in the city) and contending that his subcommittee has no jurisdiction to hold rent control hearings.
The congressman denied the tenants charge. He said he and his wife own four town houses, only two of which are rented, and those, he said, are not subject to rent control.
Wilson said the hearings were not prompted by landlord requests but by his interest in how the city's tax base is affected by rent control.
He indicated an interest in supporting a strong rent subsidy program, which he said could help apartment families paying less than $400 a month in rent and between 25 percent and 30 percent of their income for housing.
Joseph Schuble, a real estate executive who helped raise money for Barry's election last year, said a public relations consultant has told the real estate industry it would cost half a million dollars to mount the sort of antirent control campaign they would like to have.
"With the makeup of D.C. political forces, we couldn't see that it would be anything but a waste of money," Schuble said. "The Law expires in an election year, and I don't like our chances."
At least one real estate industry official is optimistic, however.
Mortgage banker Mallory Walker said he believes the housing director is working toward a phasing out of the current rent control law. "It's being debated and worked out," said Walker, one of Barry's supporters last year. "It's beyond the discussion stage. The mayor and [Robert] Moore are grappling with the issue."
Council member John Ray (D-At Large) said he thinks the current law needs major revisions and should be phased out. He said he supports a rent subsidy program to require a mix of incomes in apartment buildings, as well as job, education and tax programs that he says would make rent control unnecessary.
"My personal view is that rent control doesn't save decent housing for poor folk," Ray said. "We will end up like New York, with good places to live for the well-to-do but not for the poor. Rent control benefits the middle class and the well-to-do in the long run."
Six council members interviewed either supported the continuation of rent controls, took no firm position or declined to comment.
Wilson said in a recent interview that he indeed is a foe of rent control. "I personally believe the mayor and the housing director and the more responsible and less radical members of the City Council know that it is a failure," Wilson said. "But they just think it's a political impossibility to deal with. They've all scared of it. It is an obvious catastrophe for the city's rental stock."