Tenant activists, labor leaders and Democratic ward committees are quietly developing strategies aimed at persuading City Council members to vote for extending the city's current rent control law.
Rent control expires on April 30, and two very different rent bills are before the City Council. One, introduced by City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, would extend the existing rent control provisions for four years. The other bill, introduced by City Council member John Ray (D-At Large), would phase out rent control during the next six years by lifting all controls on rental units as they become vacant.
In some circles, the arguments have already been reduced to support for the "Clarke bill" or for the "Ray bill." Ray plans to lobby for his measure by holding public meetings in each of the city's eight wards.
Democratic organizations in wards 2 and 3, areas where large numbers of tenants live, have already discussed the bills at their regular meetings.
Ward 3 Democrats tabled a motion to support the Clarke bill and are expected to call a special meeting next month to reconsider the matter.
Ward 2 Democrats voted on Sunday to support the continuation of rent control and to oppose vacancy decontrol -- lifting the controls on units as they become vacant -- and any other proposal designed to phase out rent control.
Gottlieb Simon, vice chairman for Ward 2 Democrats, said that the organization has asked the city's Democratic State Committee to take a stand on the issue at its Feb. 7 meeting.
"We're hoping that actions like ours will tip things toward a majority at the City Council," he said.
In addition to Clarke, five council members support extending the current law. Some labor leaders have concluded that at least four council members favor the Ray bill.
Three members, Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5) and Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), will become the targets of labor-supported lobbying efforts because they are viewed as swing votes, said Bernard Demczuk, the legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees.
Demczuk said that the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL -- CIO, adopted resolutions on Tuesday in favor of rent control and against any measure to lift rent controls.
Meanwhile, tenants, the largest pro-rent control group in a city where three out of four persons are renters, may be the last to get organized.
Robert K. Stumberg, secretary for the Housing Action Council, made up of 27 organizations, said that tenants are not yet prepared for the battle.
"People have lost sight of what it was like before rent control," Stumberg said.
"The tenants are not well organized, and a lot of tenants are unaware that the law is expiring. But as soon as we get the word out and let people know that vacancy decontrol is the primary proposal, people will let the City Council know what the effects will be in their wards," said Stumberg.
In Ward 3, Valerie Costelloe, an advisory neighborhood commission member, said she fears that Ray's bill will prove harmful to elderly tenants.
Costelloe said she decided not to wait for the council's March 1 and 2 hearings on rent control, and instead she has set the date, picked the place and invited speakers to a town hall meeting on rent conrol to be held next month.
"As a tenant activist and one concerned about housing for the elderly, I believe Ray's bill is not the answer to housing needs," Costelloe said.
"If he gives all those concessions to the developers, it is not the poor who will move into the vacant apartments. It will be the big-income people," she added.