The D.C. City Council is on the verge of passing a new rent control bill tonight, minus the acrimony that for years has surrounded this most sensitive of political issues.
After five years of angry debate, court suits and demonstrations by tenants and landlords, rent control has become a fact of life in Washington for politicians, tenants and landlords.
Both landlord and tenant representatives say cautiously that the bill, which the council is scheduled to start considering at 5 p.m., is "a fairly decent piece of legislation," although both want some modifications.
Although a majority of City Council members say privately that they believe rent control has harmed the city's rental housing market, they also believe it has become a necessary evil to their political survival in a city where tenants outnumber homeowners by almost 3 to 1. A total of 112,000 apartment units are covered by rent control in the city.
"Sure we're going to have rent control," said one council member, who requested anonymity, when asked about the pending vote, "because no one on the council has the political guts to admit it doesn't work."
The council demonstrated the political importance of rent control last June when seven members introduced a bill, but then put off consideration of it until after last week's council elections. Three of the seven sponsors were up for reelection this year, and they all won new four-year terms.
The council was scheduled to take its first vote on the rent control proposal Wednesday night, when 200 tenants showed up to support strong rent controls. But Council Chairman Arrington Dixon urged the postponement until today to give his colleagues time to study 57 proposed amendments to the measure, some of them introduced just a few hours before the meeting.
While some of the amendments would provide additional advantages for tenants, others would favor landlords. After reviewing the amendments that had been submitted by yesterday afternoon, Ward 1 council member David A. Clarke, the proposal's major architect, said that none is aimed at gutting the legislation.
With rent control having gained a measure of acceptance from all quarters, Clarke, whose center-city ward has many tenants, was apparently able to fashion a bill this year that gained the grudging respect of both sides.
"I think he played a major role in making the process much easier than in the past," said John T. O'Neill, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association, the chief lobbying group for landlords.
But O'Neill added that tenants are also beginning to understand some of the landlords' problems.
Perk Perkins, of the Rent Control Steering Committee, a coalition of tenants, attributed the lack of tension to landlords' acceptance of rent control "as a political reality, and that's a difference from last time."
The bill's main feature is that it scraps the current complicated system for calculating rent increases and instead ties increases to the area's Consumer Prince Index for Urban Wage Earners, which is computed by the Department of Commerce. But all increases would be limited to 10 percent, even if the index exceeded that figure.
Landlords want the 10 percent ceiling eliminated, while tenants want to peg the increases to a different index of urban wages that is published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Such a change, according to tenant groups, would result in less than 10 percent rent increases.
Under the new bill, triple damages against landlords or tenants for rent violations would be discretionary rather than mandatory. In addition, the mayor could make the independent Rental Accomodations Office a part of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.
The new bill would also replace the nine-member Rent Control Commission composed of three landlords, three tenants and three nonaligned members with three lawyers who would be city employes.
The legislation must be passed before the council adjourns for the year on Dec. 9, or the bill will die and will have to be reintroduced when the council returns in January.