D.C. tenant groups yesterday started collecting signatures of registered city voters to try to force a November referendum on four provisions of the District's recently enacted rent control law after winning administrative and judicial approval for the petitions they are using.
Gottlieb Simon, leader of the drive to win approval of the referendum, signed the first petition in D.C. Superior Court seconds after Judge Leonard Braman told the tenant groups, "You have a green light as of now."
The tenants, calling themselves the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing, need to collect 14,000 valid signatures by July 10, including a total of 5 percent of the registered voters in at least five of the city's eight wards.
Since many people who sign petitions are not actually registered to vote, Simon said it is likely that the tenant groups actually will need to collect 20,000 signatures in order to meet the requirement for 14,000 valid names.
The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics revised the 96-word summary statement on the petitions again yesterday before Braman approved it and said the petition drive could start.
But lawyers for six landlords and four major business groups who had sued the elections agency, claiming the various versions of the summary's wording are misleading, immediately said they would appeal Braman's approval to the D.C. Court of Appeals, possibly as early as today.
Abraham J. Greenstein, one of the landlords' lawyers, said the property owners and the business groups are opposed to the referendum. But he said that if one is to be held, "our effort is to get something before the voters that is clear, accurate and not prejudicial. The board has come a long way, but it has taken five revisions . . . . We still feel the wording is prejudicial and misleading."
Vincent Mark J. Policy, another lawyer representing the landlords, said, "We think it's not in the public's interest."
Simon said that lawyers from the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which represented the tenants in negotiations over the language of the summary statement, "did a superb job of getting us out on the street. We expect the landlords will try to disrupt the process, but we are now started." He said 3,000 petitions will be printed and circulated throughout the city.
The referendum, if it makes it to the November ballot, would give D.C. voters, the majority of whom are tenants, the chance to repeal four sections of the rent control law enacted by the City Council on April 30. The most controversial of the provisions is one that in 1989 would decontrol rents on apartments as they become vacant if the city's overall vacancy rate is 6 percent at the time -- it's now 2.4 percent -- and a tenant financial assistance program is in effect.
Tenant groups had sought to get the elections board to include the commonly used term for the possible 1989 action -- vacancy decontrol -- in the summary statement on the voter petitions. But Policy objected on grounds that it is a "slang term" that is not used in the law itself. The elections board agreed with Policy and deleted it.
But the elections agency rejected Policy's request to let voters know in the summary statement that they could "accept or reject" the provisions of the rent control law. The approved summary statement says only that "this measure would reject" the four provisions of the law.