A boisterous group of about 150 community activists and a handful of D.C. City Council members held a rally in support of rent control yesterday in front of the District Building.
It was the first in a series of protests, aimed at persuading the Council not to pass a rent decontrol bill on Tuesday, organized by the group calling itself the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing.
If the proposed rent decontrol bill is passed, many District residents will be forced to give up their city jobs, uproot their families and move to the suburbs, Council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) told the group. "Continue to teach people about the dangers of people being forced out of their homelands," Mason said, likening the effects of decontrol to the displacement of blacks in South Africa.
Mason also chastized seven of her fellow council members who already have given tentative approval to the bill that would, among other things, exempt all single family homes from rent control measures. "Unfortunately the victims of these tactics are not those council members. The victims are you," she said to the cheering crowd, comprised primarily of members of tenant organizations and senior citizens.
Kwesi Sibanye, of the D.C. Black United Front and one of the organizers of the rally, said in an interview that undercutting rent control would have its most dramatic effect on "poor blacks and Latinos and seniors on fixed incomes." For the latter group, he said, "even the smallest increase means the difference between good food and dog food."
Some protesters, like Sandra Bartolo, said they felt betrayed by the politicians who represent them. Bartolo is vice president of the Hamilton House Association, representing tenants in an apartment building on New Hampshire Avenue. She said that last fall when council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) was elected, she told Bartolo that she supported tenants' rights and rent control.
Schwartz has voted in favor of the proposal. "That's not right," Bartolo said.
Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) reminded rally participants that some "conservative" council members "are coming up for reelection soon." To emphasize that point, one demonstrator raised a sign saying: "Phase Out Winter, Kane & Spaulding in 1986!"
Council Chairman David A. Clarke, members Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), and John Wilson, (D-Ward 2) were also on hand to speak in support of controlling rent increases, as were representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus.
A number of Ward 6 residents attended the rally, among them University of the District of Columbia professor Howard Croft, who said his council representative, Democrat Nadine Winter, has failed to offer any rationale for supporting decontrol. "What this bill will do is further gentrify the ward," Croft said. Already, Croft said, landlords are finding ways to raise rents exorbitantly.
Later in the afternoon, about 30 Ward 6 residents showed up outside of Winter's office where she was holding a constituents meeting. Observers said Winter came outside briefly, but the meeting quickly disintegrated when a woman launched into an emotional tirade against her.
At least one dissenter attended the rally. Daniel Butler, chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Council 6A, said he did not appreciate the efforts of yesterday's ad hoc group, adding "These are not the people who were elected to represent our views.