For many District residents, Mayor Marion Barry's announced support of rent control was welcome news. With the current law set to expire on April 30, the mayor, through one of his officials, also said he opposes a proposal to lift controls on rental units as they become vacant. The law "has generally achieved its goals of stabilizing" the District's rental market, he said.
Many members of the real estate community were disheartened by the mayor's words. Complaining that rent control discourages the building of new apartments and the maintenance of existing ones, these businessmen called for more property to be exempted from controls and for the elimination of other restrictions. "We urge the [D.C. City] Council to take some bold initiatives," said Irving Kriegsfeld, a past president of the Apartment and Office Building Association, "in restoring balance to the landlord-tenant relationship."
While there may be some truth in these statements, there is more validity in the fact that dropping rent control could drive many District residents out of the city, a fact not lost on the anxious tenants and labor union officials who have maintained that lifting rent control would pave the way for large increases in rent.
But the argument that rent control diminishes property values and tenant services is not a new one. Landlords all over the country make the same contention. However, it's difficult to judge the accuracy of these charges while the possibility exists that they may be self-fulfilling prophecies. That is, landlords who say that rent control causes services to be diminished may then cut back on services or fail to deliver them.
The fact is, however, that there are some examples of rent control in the District of Columbia in which tenants are being adequately served while landlords are making reasonable profits.
On East Capitol Street near Benning Road there is a gigantic complex called Fort Chaplin Park. With 549 units, it houses thousands of people. As you drive down East Capitol Street, you can't help noticing the well-kept grounds and neat appearance of the place. Trash is collected daily. Because of a long waiting list, occupancy is always 100 percent. The laundry rooms are as spotless as the entranceways. Many of the residents' terraces are verdant with potted evergreen plants.
During the summer, the tenants, many of whom are teachers and midlevel government workers, never worry about the best times for swimming to avoid crowds because Fort Chaplin Park has two pools ringed by brightly colored poolside furniture.
"It seems to get better through the years," said tenant Leonard Wallace, an X-ray technician. "I wouldn't live anyplace else."
As resident manager Anna B. Smith explained this week, "We have a vigilant type of management and a good crop of tenants who have pride in their residence. We also have the support of the management company that gives me tools to work with . . . . "
Although Alan Levy, head of residential management for Charles E. Smith Companies, which manages the complex, agrees with his resident manager about the reasons Fort Chaplin Park has been so successful, he still feels the investors are not getting the return they deserve. But the project is profitable, according to one of the builders.
While the success of any housing complex depends on the stability and reliability of the tenants, both the resident manager and the corporate manager of Fort Chaplin Park stress that tenant stability is key to Fort Chaplin's having survived for 20 years in good shape. "Some tenants have been here since day one," Smith says proudly. But it is equally clear that the stability of the tenants depends on the predictable scale of rent increases that rent control provides.
The current squabble over rent control revolves around two bills -- council member John Ray's "phase out" bill that would lift controls as housing units become vacant, and City Council Chairman David A. Clarke's bill that would extend provisions of the current law for four years. If the matter were submitted to a referendum, I'm sure most District residents would support Clarke's bill. And one visit to Fort Chaplin Park would immediately show why it deserves to pass.