The D.C. election board asked Congress yesterday to suspend its review of four provisions of the city's new rent control legislation after a tenants group filed petitions seeking to force a November referendum on the sections.
The Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing submitted 28,000 signatures to the board yesterday. The board must determine whether the petitions were signed by at least 14,160 registered city voters, including a total of 5 percent of the registered voters in at least five of the city's eight wards.
Election board attorney William Lewis said that he notified the president of the U.S. Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives to suspend its review of the four provisions. By law, Congress cannot take further action on those provisions. The 30-day congressional review period for the legislation ends today and the part of the law not affected by the proposed referendum will become law, said Lewis.
Gottlieb Simon, a Southwest tenant, who has led the drive to win approval of the referendum, said yesterday during a press conference that "the council made a mistake" when it unanimously approved the rent control law in April.
The most controversial of the four contested provisions would lift rent controls beginning in 1989 from all units as they become vacant provided that the city's overall rental vacancy rate is 6 percent and a tenant assistance program is operating.
The referendum would also call for repealing provisions that would remove rent controls from single family houses as they are vacated, from buildings that were 80 percent vacant on April 30 of this year, and from housing units for which a distressed property improvement plan is in effect.
City Council members Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) and Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) joined the referendum supporters yesterday and said they had helped collect signatures.
Mason said the measure adopted by the council would displace some District residents and that the voters had the right to change it. She said that voters should use the referendum more often in the future.
The proposed rent control referendum would be the first time that method has been used to try and overturn existing legislation.
District citizens have used initiatives to try and force the council to pass legislation dealing with the homeless and mandatory sentencing.
Some critics predict that asking voters to reject parts of legislation already enacted by the City Council could have a negative impact.
"We don't think this is any way to run a government," said Donald Slatton, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association (AOBA), which challenged the initial wording of the proposed referendum in court.
"If they manage to get the referendum on the ballot, what it is going to say to the council is 'don't deal with any controversial issues,' " Slatton said.
Slatton said his organization would wait for the election board to determine if the petitions are valid before it decides whether any further challenges are necessary.
In an unrelated matter, other tenant activists are also seeking the election board's approval for several rent control initiatives to force the council to pass legislation, including measures allowing tenants to deduct the cost of repairs in their apartments and placing additional restrictions on a landlords ability to raise rents. The board must decide whether the initiatives should be placed on the September 1986 election ballot.