Landlords pleaded for relief from rent control, tenants urged a continuation of the restrictions and housing experts advised a middle ground as the D.C. City Council listened to a daylong parade of witnesses on the first day of hearings on rent control.
About 170 people have signed up to testify on two divergent bills that the council is considering to replace the current law, which expires April 30.
One bill introduced by council member John Ray (D-At Large) would extend rent control for six years while lifting controls on apartments as they become vacant. The other bill, introduced by council chairman David A. Clarke, would extend rent control for four years and retain the provisions in the current law.
Andrew Corley, president of the Washington Real Estate Brokers Association, said his group felt compelled to testify because it had grown weary of the council's efforts to extend rent control without addressing some of the problems that the law has caused.
"A tenant can literally get by with paying two to three months' rent per year," Corley said. "Here's how. He moves in and pays the first month's rent, then he creates a few code violations, gets the inspector out and gets the violations cited and uses them as a defense against nonpayment of rent."
Corley said that rent control encourages tenants to create code violations and is forcing more rental property off the market.
But proponents of rent control argued that the proposed lifting of controls on vacant units would force people to pay higher rents and displace lower income tenants.
"I believe vacancy decontrol will, if enacted, be the death knell of rent control and cause extreme hardship on the poorest tenants," said Calvin W. Rolark, a local publisher and husband of City Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) " . . . Poor people will join the thousands already on the list for public housing or the ranks of the homeless."
Ray, chairman of the council's Consumer and Regulatory Committee, presided over yesterday's hearing and had three expert witnesses to testify about the benefits of phasing out rent control.
Peter D. Salins, chairman of the Department of Urban Affairs at New York's Hunter College, told the council members that four decades of rent regulation in New York "has been nothing short of disastrous to the quality and availability of rental housing." In addition, Salins said that rent control benefits the well-to-do rather than the poor.
Salins and another Ray witness, Anthony Downs, a housing expert at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research center, said that Ray's vacancy decontrol proposal appears to be a reasonable solution to the District's housing problems.
The bill "is a step away from the presently undesirable controlled housing market situation towards the appropriate final goal," said Downs. "I believe that goal consists of two elements: a free market in housing without rent controls and universally available income supplements for poor households so they can pay the costs of decent housing."
But Downs added that in the absence of rent control, a federally funded program would be the only way to make housing affordable to all of the District's poor residents. The proposed federal budget includes no money for new subsidized housing.
The rent control hearings are scheduled to continue today and a rent control advocacy group called the Emergency Committee To Save Rental Housing plans to hold a noon protest rally outside the District building.