A proposal to begin phasing out the city's 10-year-old system of rent control, which has ignited a fierce debate between landlords and tenants, moves tomorrow from the community to a divided City Council.
A total of 150 people have signed up to testify at three days of public hearings on two divergent bills that the council must consider before April 30, when the city's current rent control law expires.
One bill would let rent control wither away gradually, while the other would extend the current system of controls. Neither has gained the support of a majority of the 13-member council.
During the last two months, tenants, fearing that a loss of rent control could mean higher rents and displacement of poor and elderly people, have formed organizations in each of the city's eight wards and revived the Emergency Committee to Save Rent Control, which had been dormant since 1980, the last time the council had to vote on rent control.
The groups plan to publish a tabloid on rent control, stage a protest rally at the District Building and sell yellow campaign buttons that proclaim: "Prevent Homelessness. Strengthen Rent Control."
On the other side, landlords oppose the continuation of rent control, saying that depressed rents hinder them from maintaining their buildings in safe and sanitary condition, further erode their ability to earn a profit and increase the number of abandoned buildings.
The real estate industry, viewed by some politicians as the city's strongest lobby, plans to pressure council members to support ending all controls. Observers note that the mayor and six of the council's 13 members are up for reelection next year and that the real estate industry usually contributes liberally to the campaign coffers of candidates who support their views.
Bernice S. Brown, who has lived in her Southeast apartment for 18 years and is a part of the grass-roots fight to save rent control, said the City Council can expect a great deal of pressure.
"The battle is more intense this time around," Brown said. " . . . There is outrage and alarm, real true alarm."
Two out of three city residents are tenants. The District has 159,900 occupied rental units, according to the 1981 annual housing survey produced by the Bureau of the Census, which are the most recent statistics available. An estimated 120,000 units are covered by rent control. The remainder are exempted because they are owned by government or landlords with four or fewer units.
City Council Chairman David A. Clarke and council member John Ray (D-At Large) have introduced the two bills defining the fight over rent control. Both men have spent this month crisscrossing the city to promote their views at community meetings.
Meanwhile, Mayor Marion Barry, who invited tenants and landlords to joint meetings to talk about compromises, is expected to announce his position on rent control during the public hearings.
Tenants and landlords and the mayor's proposed fiscal 1986 budget indicate that Barry will focus on streamlining rent control and arriving at rent increases acceptable to both tenants and landlords.
The Clarke bill, which is favored by tenants, would extend the provisions in the current law for another four years. The bill offers landlords several ways of raising rents. The major methods include allowing owners to take an automatic annual increase based on the Washington area consumer price index, or obtaining the city's approval for increases to generate at least a 10 percent return for the owner, or to pay for major building improvements and major renovations.
Under the current law, an estimated 95 percent of the city's landlords take the annual automatic increases, which cannot exceed 10 percent, said John Hampton, the city rent administrator.
The Clarke bill would also continue tenant rights to challenge rent increase requests at the city's rent control office, and the measure would require that apartment buildings substantially comply with city inspections before rent increases are granted.
"I believe that rent control is working to help low-income people," said Clarke. "Until we are able to assist people who cannot afford their own housing, we should not eliminate rent control."
Ray's bill would extend rent control for six years, establish an annual $15 million rent subsidy program for low- and moderate-income tenants who pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent (more than 25 percent for elderly tenants), and meet other criteria to be established later.
Ray, who favors phasing out rent control, included a provision in his bill that would lift controls on all rental units as they become vacant. That proposal has become a lightning rod for tenants who say they fear it would result in more evictions and higher rents, forcing some tenants out of the city.
"I will not do anything that will push anybody out of the city no matter what," Ray said. " . . . What I'm trying to do is create an alternative."
But Ray had trouble convincing tenants as he traveled across the city carrying large posters summarizing his proposal. The meetings were emotional for Ray and tenants alike. Ray insisted that his bill would improve the housing conditions for poor people. At many of the meetings, his voice would crack with emotion as he talked of watching the joy fade from the eyes of little children who had no choice but to live year after year in dilapidated, rat-infested apartments.
But the tenants, some of whom followed Ray from meeting to meeting, often were irate and at times hostile. Eventually, tenants came with prepared arguments against Ray's proposal and they characterized his story as an emotional attempt to distract them from their objections.
Ray said that some tenant activists have used "scare tactics" to frighten tenants and prevent them from listening to his bill's merits. But some tenant leaders said there was no need for coaching.
"From the moment the debate began, it was cast in the light that we've got to get rid of rent control," said Larry Weston, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association, a tenant advocacy group.
"Some tenants are scared to death that there is going to be a premium on their units and that they will be expendable. They want to talk about security and stability. Vacancy decontrol does not promote domestic tranquility."
Ray, however, said he has not been discouraged. "I anticipated that the tenants would be on one extreme and the landlords on the other," he said. "There has to be some room in between and if there isn't, the city is in a lot of trouble."
Meanwhile, landlords say they oppose both the Clarke and the Ray bills.
Donald Slatton, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association and designated spokesman for the industry, said the industry rejects any proposal that continues rent control. Slatton also strongly disagreed with Ray's plan to have landlords pay a portion of the proposed rent subsidy program.
"Many people can't afford to pay market rents but they should be helped by the whole community, not just by us," Slatton said. "Do we make Giant and Safeway sell groceries to poor people at a lower price?"
Slatton and other industry representatives also argue that the debate is too narrowly focused and that the real issue is the future of the city's housing stock.
"Rent control is a Band-Aid that somebody put on years ago in the face of an emergency," said Tom Borger, spokesman for the Washington Board of Realtors. "The focus should be on the renovation of the housing stock. Somebody is going to have to face reality. One day there is going to be an end to rent control for low-income people because the buildings are just going to rot."
City Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), said, however, that he believes the city needs to make a concerted effort to improve the condition of the city's housing stock.
On Tuesday he introduced two bills to address the problem of vacant apartment buildings that were immediately sponsored by a majority of the council members.
One measure would establish a process by which dilapidated rental properties could be declared public nuisances and placed in receivership. The bill would also create a homestead program to allow low- and moderate-income tenant cooperatives to purchase and repair buildings designated by the mayor.
The other bill would amend the city's regulations governing delinquent property taxes and water charges by shortening an owner's redemption period from two years to one. Under the bill, the District could take title to property if the debts were not paid.
Both tenant and industry representatives are lobbying council members. Of the 13 members, Clarke's bill is supported by another five: Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), John Wilson (D-Ward 2), Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) and Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large).
Ray's bill has one other supporter, H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7). The remaining five members have taken no public position. They are Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), William Spaulding (D-Ward 5), Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), and at-large members Betty Ann Kane and Carol Schwartz. Since neither bill has a majority behind it, observers anticipate major moves toward compromises after the public hearings.
Jarvis, chairman of the council's Housing Committee, said the central issue is "housing for whom" and that she favors using income as a means of determining who should receive rent-control protections.
Wilson, a strong rent-control supporter who said he rejects everthing in Ray's bill, added that council members have said little about what they favor.
"The Ray bill is a disaster and there is no question about it," said Wilson. "But I'm not sure what people will vote for or want they want. One thing is certain: No matter which way people vote, they can still say they voted for rent control."