Nearly 200 persons, chanting slogans and clapping their hands, rallied at the District Building yesterday in an effort to urge a City Council committee to take action on a bill that would give renters the right to make repairs on their dwellings and deduct the costs from their rents.
The crowd confronted council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the housing committee, for about an hour in the council chambers, demanding a vote on the measure. Public hearings were held on the bill last February.
"If landlords are doing their jobs, they have nothing to fear from this legislation," said Bernard Demczuk, a labor organizer representing the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO. "The politicians who do not like this legislation are dodging it."
Jarvis, engaging in sharp exchanges with the crowd that sometimes shouted her down, refused the group's demand for a committee vote, but did agree to schedule a committee meeting for July 7 to discuss the bill.
She termed the bill a "legislative elixir" that would result in the displacement of tenants rather than protect them, and force some landlords into bankruptcy because they would not be able to pay mortgages.
Jarvis, a candidate for mayor, urged the group to direct its anger at Mayor Marion Barry for failing to enforce the city's housing laws.
"The Rental Accommodations Office and housing inspectors are not getting the job done," countered Denise Belton, a tenant activist. "The present escrow law isn't working. We want a law that tenants will enforce and that the landlords know will be enforced if they don't do their jobs."
The bill was introduced last year by council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1). It would allow tenants limited rights to make repairs costing up to $500 per month and deduct those costs from rents. The measure is being pushed by the D.C. Housing Action Council, a group of tenant organizations.
Landlords say the measure unfairly would permit tenants to decide which repairs to make rather than housing inspectors and would result in costly disputes and tenant abuse.
The tenant groups contend current laws and regulations are rarely or poorly enforced, cumbersome and result in months-long delays for settling problems.
Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), a cosponsor of the bill, also spoke at yesterday's rally, telling the crowd that the measure was "a reasonable approach to a longstanding, thorny problem."
"One of your civil rights," Rolark said, "is the right to a decent home."