Allow me to be candid about the District's rent control referendum. After attending two news conferences yesterday -- one led by Mayor Marion Barry urging defeat and the other led by City Council Chairman David Clarke calling for passage -- I pity the voter who goes to the polls on Tuesday.
Both Barry and Clarke say they represent the interest of low- and moderate-income residents. Both sides say the other side is lying. Both say look who's on the other side: Barry has landlords; Clarke has yuppies. Both sides say if the other wins, the city becomes a place for the rich and the poor with no in-between.
The fact is: Both sides are full of themselves.
With the "Manhattanization of D.C." in full swing, it is likely that regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's vote, the poor will get poorer, the rich richer and middle-income folk will just have to make more money -- or move.
After 14 years of rent control in some form or another, after pumping millions of dollars into places like the Bates Street housing project, the only demonstrable increase in affordable, private housing has been through the efforts of churches like the United House of Prayer for All People in Shaw and the Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast.
Although some of these church housing projects were accomplished with the help of government loans and, in some cases, special deals on the purchase of land, it was precisely because the city had failed to do the job that churches had to go into the construction business.
Now comes this referendum -- three typewritten lines on a ballot -- that purports to save the day, or lose it, depending on which side does the talking.
If approved, the referendum would overturn the current rent control law's "vacancy decontrol" provisions on some properties. Also, in 1989, all rental units would be exempt from controls as they become vacant, but only if the city's rental vacancy rate is 6 percent or more.
But if the voter has not read the 95-page law, those three lines will appear to be absolutely meaningless, or misleading at best. Proponents and opponents alike have have exploited this ignorance with appeals to emotion rather than common sense.
"The mayor is misleading the people," Clarke charged at his rally. "We're not going to give him a blank check. This is not a program to let the mayor help out his favorite landlords."
"I never intended to be as strongly out front on this, beyond saying vote 'no'," Barry said at his news conference. "But then I started hearing all those lies and the use of scare tactics . . . . Remember, a 'no' vote is a vote for poor people."
Clarke says that landlords are not to be trusted and that without the restrictions placed on them through the referendum, they will end up gouging tenants in an effort to make room for those who can pay higher rents.
The mayor says he believes that landlords and Realtors will respond to monetary incentives within the rent control law as it is, make needed repairs, and construct more apartments.
After spending several years making big business happy, he feels the atmosphere is ripe for forging a "cooperative relationship" among landlords, Realtors and low- and moderate-income residents.
Barry and Clarke, who were elected citywide, are concerned about maintaining their political bases. And their varying approaches could serve as a test as to who is really in touch with the people.
But with this being an off-year election, smart money says that many people won't even bother to vote. And it would hard to blame them.
For the patriotic souls who do show up, keep in mind that there will be only two choices -- neither of them likely to accomplish what their supporters say.
In the absence of facts, you can either have faith in Clarke, and vote yes, or in Barry, and vote no.