EIGHT YEARS AGO a research report prepared for the city, "Rent Control in the District of Columbia," offered this warning: "The main issue, poverty among households with children, the unemployed and the elderly, is skirted by rent control rather than addressed directly. . . . While it may be politically advantageous to continue rent controls as in the past, at little immediate direct cost to the District, in the long run not only will future tenants suffer from continued disinvestment in District rental housing, but District residents have a greater responsibility today for the poor and elderly residing within District boundaries than rent control provides."
The report was prophetic. Unfortunately, it was entirely ignored in the recent public hearings on whether the District should extend rent control. Its advice is still sound.
Maintaining rent control in an uncontrolled economy, said the report, "can be catastrophic in terms of reducing essential capital inputs and maintenance in the housing stock. The result will be the rapid deterioration of the physical facilities on which the District and its tenant residents depend for housing." This is what has happened.
Since the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs have no rent control, the report went on, housing investment "may be diverted to the non- controlled suburbs which are directly competitive with the District." As predicted, jurisdictions such as Prince George's County have become stiff competitors for the District's young middle class.
"The housing tenant change is a pipeline process by which those who have the resources to do so buy, or rent, new housing," said the report. Again, it was on the mark. Rent control in the District has diminished the incentive to build apartments, encouraged the aluent to stay in their older buildings and left the poorest in the most decrepit apartments.
"It is our conclusion that rent control should not be continued indefinitely in the District of Columbia, for the many deleterious effects to the rental housing stock," a section of the 1977 report concluded. It's too bad that no one listened then, but some part of the damage perhaps can be remedied now if the D.C. Council will approve member John Ray's bill. It would extend rent controls for six years but lift all controls on units as they become vacant. The city's experience under rent control plainly supports this change.