D.C. City Council member John Ray's bill to lift rent controls on apartments as they become vacant -- already under fire from tenant groups -- was opposed yesterday by city landlords and Realtors who complained the measure does not go far enough.
Spokesmen for the Washington Board of Realtors, the Apartment and Office Building Association and the D.C. Builders Association said at a news conference that nothing short of the abolition of rent control would stem the decline and abandonment of rental housing.
"A massive infusion of private capital is needed to preserve our housing stock," said Tom Borger, a past president of the Board of Realtors. "That capital will not be forthcoming as long as rent control is enforced in the District of Columbia."
A statement issued by the three organizations contended that the city's rent control law has done little to improve the living conditions of low- and moderate-income residents, while it provided relatively cheap housing for upper-income residents who can afford to pay much more.
"Rent control has been instrumental in discouraging construction of new rental housing," the statement said. "The onerous, costly and time-consuming rent control procedures required of rental property owners combine to make rental housing the least attractive of all real estate investments."
The groups argued that rent control has been a major factor in the decision of cash-strapped landlords to abandon more than 5,000 apartment units, many formerly occupied by low- and moderate-income families.
The real estate and landlord groups criticized the bills introduced by Ray (D-At Large) and Council Chairman David A. Clarke, who favors extending the existing law. They called for an end to the rent control law after taking part in a meeting with Mayor Marion Barry and tenant leaders in Barry's office.
The city's rent control law, which affects about 120,000 units and limits rent increases to a maximum of 10 percent a year, is due to expire April 30.
Barry said recently he favors a continuation of rent control in some form. However, he didn't indicate at yesterday's closed-door meeting whether he will support Ray's or Clarke's bill or whether he will get behind some other measure, according to meeting participants.
Under Ray's proposal, apartments that are vacated would be removed from rent control unless they subsequently are rented to elderly tenants. The measure also calls for sanctions against landlords who discriminate against or refuse to rent to the elderly or families with children.
To provide incentives to rehabilitate some of the 5,000 abandoned rental units and to build new apartments, Ray's bill would provide tax-exempt financing and a one-time waiver of property taxes and sewer fees. His measure also would establish a subsidy program for low-income tenants and for the elderly.
Last night, the Democratic State Committee adopted a resolution stating the committee's position that rent control should be continued, and voiced opposition to lifting controls on apartments as they become vacant, as well as to any proposal "intended to phase out rent control piecemeal."
The vote came after Ray and Clarke had spoken. Ray argued that at least 10,000 housing units had been removed from the market in the decade that rent control has been in effect, and that it is time to try new ideas. He said that his bill would provide a $15 million rent subsidy for low-income and elderly persons who would need assistance after some controls are lifted.
Clarke, however, said that he could not support the vacancy decontrol provision in Ray's bill as long as the city had not implemented some type of housing subsidy program.
Following speeches by Ray and Clarke, a motion to table the resolution failed by a vote of 28 to 27.