D.C. City Council members tried yesterday to agree on a compromise rent control bill but the negotiations fell apart, leaving in doubt when a council committee would vote on a bill that would go to the full council.
By day's end it was apparent, however, that the most controversial proposal on the issue -- a plan by City Council member John Ray (D-At Large) to phase out rent control as apartments become vacant, called "vacancy decontrol" -- was dead.
Tenants, who had vigorously opposed the vacancy decontrol provision, were claiming victory and landlords, who had supported the provision, were talking about alternatives to decontrol.
The city's current rent control law expires April 30 and a council committee was scheduled to begin work today on legislation to replace that law.
The flurry of negotiations began yesterday after Ray, who had included vacancy decontrol in a bill he introduced in the council in January, gave council members a compromise bill that did not contain the vacancy decontrol provision. But a majority of council members rejected that compromise saying they supported a bill introduced by council Chairman David A. Clarke, which would extend the provisions of the current law.
Clarke and five members who support his bill later offered their own compromise, which Ray rejected.
Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), a cosponsor of the Clarke bill, said yesterday's attempts at a compromise failed because "I don't know that anybody was too enthusiastic about any of the compromises."
Ray said he offered the compromise because he lacked the votes to pass his bill in the council's Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which he chairs. The committee was scheduled to meet today to begin considering the Clarke bill and the original Ray bill. Ray said he may delay the meeting until Tuesday.
Three of the committee's five members support the Clarke bill and represent Wards 1, 2 and 3, areas where tenants had organized strong opposition to Ray's original proposal. When the committee meets, Ray said that he would recommend sending the Clarke bill to the full council.
"With the compromise that they offered to me, I would rather take my chances and fight my battle later," said Ray. He said the compromise package he rejected would have prevented any council member from offering amendments to a bill when it came before the full council, but would give no further details.
"They Clarke and his supporters don't know if they have seven votes for their position and they would like to have seven votes locked in," said Ray. "The lobbying is really going to intensify when a bill gets before the full council and anything could happen to votes under that kind of pressure."
The 13-member council needs seven votes to pass legislation. As part of the Ray compromise package, the council would have waived its rules and placed the rent control issue on the agenda for a vote at Tuesday's council meeting.
"I think the battle has been won on vacancy decontrol and we are prepared to go into another round," said Bernard Demczuk, a spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees, one of several local unions that advocate the passage of a strong rent control law.
Tenant representatives, while cheering the apparent defeat of the vacancy decontrol, said they hoped the council would accept no amendments to the Clarke bill that would weaken it.
Real estate representatives said they would fight for inclusion in any new bill provisions that would help landlords earn sufficient income to maintain buildings.
Thomas Borger, a spokesman for the Washington Board of Realtors, said that the industry supports amendments that include lifting rent controls on single-family homes, raising the rent increases allowed when apartment become vacant from 10 to 25 percent, increasing the minimum rate of return from 10 percent to 12 percent for landlords who file hardship petitions and streamlining the administration of rent control by changing from 1973 to 1985 that date for calculating rent increases.
"Those changes would help put more money back into the rental market while protecting current tenants," Borger said.