A proposed November voter referendum seeking to revoke portions of the District's new rent control law cleared a legal hurdle yesterday when the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics turned back a challenge to the ballot measure brought by a coalition of landlords.
The board denied an attempt by the landlords to strike thousands of signatures from a petition supporting the referendum, and it rejected arguments that the proposed ballot issue is invalid.
An attorney for the landlord group, called the Committee to Oppose Referendum No. 001, said the landlords are considering appealing the ruling to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Calling the referendum a "knee-jerk response" to the city's housing problems, attorney Vincent M. Policy suggested that the group will mount a campaign to defeat the referendum at the polls.
An ad hoc tenants group calling itself the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing submitted the referendum in an attempt to block portions of the rent control law passed by the City Council in April.
The new law would loosen rent controls on some single-family homes and on buildings that are 80 percent vacant, and it contains provisions that are less stringent on landlords than the previous law. The referendum proposed by tenants would restore those controls.
In their effort to keep the new rent control law intact, the landlord group challenged the referendum on technical legal grounds, arguing that it is invalid because the rent law has taken effect.
After the law was passed by the city, it went to Congress for a 30-day review. Under the D.C. charter, Congress must suspend its review when it receives notice from the elections board that a referendum petition challenging the law has been filed.
In this case, the elections board sent Congress notice of the rent control referendum July 16, the day the review period was scheduled to end. Congress has not returned to the City Council the challenged portions of the law, as required by the charter.
The elections board in yesterday's ruling acknowledged the lack of response from Congress, but it held that this should not prevent the referendum from appearing on the ballot.
The board also rejected arguments by the landlords that the petition was submitted in the wrong form.
"This is a classic case of form over substance," said Gottlieb Simon, a spokesman for the tenants group. "They [landlords] have not only scraped the bottom of the barrel, they are now scraping under the barrel."
The elections board must complete a survey to verify signatures on the petition before approving the referendum for the ballot.