A group of tenant activists who concede that the City Council won the first battle over new rent-control legislation is doggedly trying to reclaim lost ground through a referendum that would repeal sections of the law.
If the referendum is placed on the November ballot it is likely to create a political storm.
Seven council members sponsored the new rent-control bill that was unanimously adopted April 30 and would certainly oppose having their judgment questioned. The other six members, who voted for the new legislation after failing to gain sufficient support for re-enacting the then-existing law, would have to decide whether to be in the peculiar position of siding with tenant activists against their colleagues.
In addition, the referendum movement is being billed as the first in a series of actions a tenant political action committee has planned to help unseat council members who supported the new rent control legislation.
Arguing that the law could help displace low- and moderate-income tenants while increasing profits for landlords, the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing accused the council of failing to act in the best interest of District residents.
The committee collected the signatures of more than 28,000 residents who favor allowing voters to determine whether portions of the law should be throw out.
"We're talking about fundamental democratic values, whether it's elite businessmen who run a soft-drink company or our local politicians who feel they can ignore with impunity clear, consistent and even insistent views of their constituents," said Gottlieb Simon, a Ward 2 tenant who headed the petition drive for the referendum. "We brought back old Coke. We will bring back affordable housing."
After the referendum petition was filed July 16, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics requested that Congress suspend its review of the sections in question. The remainder of the law went into effect after July 17, at the end of the 30-day congressional review period.
Before the referendum can be placed on the ballot, the elections board must determine whether the petitions have the required 14,000 valid signatures, and hold a hearing on a challenge to the referendum petition.
The challenge, largely backed by landlords, alleges that the proposed referendum is invalid because it is not in the proper form and because Congress did not physically return the sections in question immediately after being told to suspend its review.
In the past, initiatives have been placed on the ballot to propose legislation in the absence of council action, but this is the first time disgruntled citizens have attempted to use of a referendum to repeal legislation adopted by the council.
Some critics say that major problems could result if the referendum is successful.
"The referendum is a very dangerous procedure, as opposed to the initiative, because you can pick and choose to repeal parts of a law in the heat of the moment," said council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large). "What the council put together was a very delicate balance of [rent] subsidies and incentives for investors."
Kane said she is convinced that the majority of District residents agree with the council's action and that the tenant activists were able to get 28,000 signatures because "people will sign anything."
But referendum supporters disagree.
"There is a feeling that tenants were sold out on the issue," said Harry Thomas, a Ward 5 resident and a member of the Democratic State Committee. "I think they felt that the real estate people had gotten to council members and that they [the members] went for the people who had the most money and could contribute the most money in their campaigns when they run for reelection."
Valerie Costelloe, a referendum supporter who is also actively trying to organize tenants into a political action committee, said the tenant groups will begin a major campaign this month to register tenants. The plan, she said, is to identify those who could be transported to the polls to vote for the referendum and who could vote in 1986 to defeat council members who sponsored the new rent law.
"The City Council, as we have it now, is not a government truly for the people," said Costelloe. "They are locked in with these special interest groups and the people are up in arms. The war is not over."