Tenant activists are searching for answers to explain why the seemingly liberal-minded D.C. City Council last week gave the city's real estate industry a major victory by making dramatic changes in the city's rent control law.
Some activists quickly concluded that the seven council members who successfully pushed for the adoption of a compromise bill that would lead to higher rents in some cases and would lift controls on some units gave in to the strong lobbying efforts of the real estate community.
Others, however, maintain that the council's initial vote (the final vote will be taken Tuesday) reflects the changing political outlook of the council members.
Marianna Moore, a community activist who wanted the current rent control law strengthened, said tenants were caught off-guard.
"This is not the council we're used to dealing with," said Moore, who has worked on housing issues for years. "It is more conservative, not as open and shows less of a willingness to be honest with constituents and their concerns. This is big-city politics now. It is not the community sitting down to address the issues with their council members."
Some council members agree with her. The first council, elected in 1974, was drawn largely from the ranks of former civil rights workers and community activists. Several of them are still on the council, but they have been joined by people who have helped change the council's political outlook.
Of the seven members who voted for a rent control law that calls for some sweeping changes -- including exempting all single-family homes from rent control -- only two of them, William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5) and Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), were on the original council.
The others are Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who joined the council in January; Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), who wanted to go much further in lifting controls on rental property; Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), the council's housing committee chairman; H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who owns and manages a number of rental properties, and John Ray (D-At Large), who maintains that the current rent law failed to accomplish its purpose of supplying more housing.
Of the six who voted to keep the current law, four are from the first elected council. Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), one of the six but a relative newcomer to the council, said that as council members have changed, so have the lobbying efforts of special interest groups. He compared the real estate group to tenant activists.
"The real estate community had professionals who were well organized and well financed, and they know how to make promises they can keep," said Smith, a former community activist. "The tenants are not that well organized and have not developed into the well-led lobby that it has the potential to be. A lot of the tenants are not registered to vote, and council members are aware of that. They are a paper tiger."
John Wilson (D-Ward 2), an original council member who wants to keep the current law, said the council has found it easier to go along with the needs of special interest groups than to be in conflict with those groups. He says constituents become surprised at council actions only because they are operating under a number of misconceptions.
"In this city, if you're black, people automatically think you're liberal and that there are just a bunch of black liberal Democrats running the government," said the former civil rights worker. "The council is drastically changing. It is a much more conservative body today than it was six years ago."
But other council members say the rent control vote cannot be used to measure the number of conservatives and liberals on the council. In the future, as in the past, alliances on the council are expected to change with the issues.
Meanwhile, tenant activists say they plan to fight for the provisions in the current law until the final vote is