Rosa Foster, like most of the 200 inner-city residents gathered at a Ward 1 neighborbood meeting last night, came to protest.
Clutching the microphone firmly and staring angrily at City Council member John Ray, Foster described how she often sends her four children to stay with friends to shield them from the lice and mice in her efficiency apartment, then demanded:
"Who is responsible for placing tenants when they are in a building like that . . . . How can you stand before us and let us live like this?"
The accusatory tone pervaded most of the questions addressed to Ray (D-At Large), who had come to the meeting at St. Augustine Church at 1419 V St. NW to talk about rent control.
The city's current rent law, which controls about 120,000 units, expires April 30, and the meeting was the first of eight scheduled by Ray in each of the city's wards in an effort to promote the rent-control bill he has introduced.
Ray's bill would extend rent control for six years while making some major changes, including lifting controls from rental units as they become vacant, setting aside $15 million a year to subsidize rents for low-income and elderly residents and using tax incentives to stimulate housing construction.
The only other bill on the matter before the council -- introduced by Chairman David A. Clarke -- would extend the provisions in the existing rent control law for four years.
Ray arrived at last night's meeting to find the opposition to his measure well organized. About 100 persons, most of them members of the Ward 1 Tenants Coalition, arrived an hour before the council member and distributed handouts with the heading: "The hazardous effects of Ray's bill."
Throughout the two-hour meeting, Ray was clearly on the defensive as he tried to explain that the city is sometimes powerless to help renters who complain of housing code violations such as the ones described by Foster, a Ward 1 resident.
Ray acknowledged that he had visited Foster's building and knew of another tenant there who said she could kill eight or nine mice a day in her efficiency apartment. The building "ought to be closed down," Ray told Foster. "The city doesn't have anywhere to locate you all. That's why you're still there."
"Why?" someone yelled from the audience. "We pay our rent?"
Ray told the audience he is convinced that the city and not the landlords would have to help poor people find safe and decent housing. He argued that his bill would encourage landlords to renovate buildings and that people would be helped by the $15 million subsidy provision in his bill.
But the audience was not persuaded.
"My mother and I need a new apartment but cannot afford the high cost," one questioner said. " . . . You are going to give the landlords the ability to raise rents again. Where do you propose we go? The streets?"
Others demanded that the present rent law be strengthened.
"The law is always on the side of the real estate person," said one woman, whose comments were greeted with thunderous applause. "I do believe we need to strengthen the laws we have now. Tighten them up a little bit."
Ray is chairman of the council's Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which will hold public hearings on both rent control bills and make a recommendation to the full council, which is expected to vote in late March.