On April 16, the D.C. Council voted for a substitute rent control bill proposed by Council member Charlene Jarvis. Make no mistake, the Jarvis bill is a rent control bill. So far as basic tenant protections are concerned, the Jarvis bill is little different from the old law.
Yet, that evening if you had your television set on at about 10 p.m. and turned to the station I did, you would have heard, "Rent control dead. News at 11." The news at 11 was worse, in that it was just as fallacious and, unfortunately, not so brief.
That has been the tenor. To support rent control became synonymous with support of the extension of the old law. To support any change whatever in the old law was to be an enemy of District tenants and an agent of the real estate industry.
When I looked at the old law and the deplorable state of the rental housing market in the District, I believed the reasonable course was to improve the law and in so doing to improve the housing market. The old law is preceded by a series of "findings of fact." The first such finding of fact is that the District has a "severe shortage of rental housing." That finding was made 10 years ago. The initial law was an emergency response to that finding. And yet, 10 years later, we find ourselves in a situation much worse by any standard.
The old law was an emergency response to crisis. That law was not then nor was it ever developed into a solution for the problems creating that crisis. A crisis was noted, a Band-Aid applied, reapplied and then applied again, but no solution to a continually worsening problem was ever devised.
I listened to tenant representatives, labor representatives and others argue for yet another application of the same old Band-Aid. I could not then, nor can I now, see how that would benefit tenants in particular or the District as a whole. How any reasonable person can believe it is pro- tenant to continue in perpetuity a law that encourages a decreased housing supply and almost guarantees property owners annual profit regardless of management ability, housing quality or market conditions is beyond me. That's exactly what the old law did.
The law that in recent weeks has been called the only pro-tenant measure available to us has allowed at least sufficient profit for those who own existing rental property in higher-cost areas of the District while hastening more and more boards to be put on lower-income properties.
The pro-tenant bill we were urged to support not only did nothing to encourage new building or rehabilitation; it also actually discouraged such development in every way. Thanks to 10 years of a political quick-fix, the unnatural market shortage of rental housing has created a seller's market in which the renter is almost a captive of the property owner. With no option to shop around for housing, with no competitive market, the tenant must take what he or she is given. With no incentive for developers to make capital improvements on existing property, much less add to the housing supply, what the tenant is usually given is minimal.
Somehow those who acted to change this horrible situation were depicted as anti-tenant villians, while those who supported continuation of this situation were the tenants' friends. Yet through all the political threats, through all the misinformation and through all the alarmist tactics, a majority of the council members did exercise proper judgment with a large measure of courage to enact a rent control bill that will continue to protect tenants while beginning to solve the housing problems we face.
The bill the council passed on final reading last Tuesday creates a healthy investment environment in several ways. It permits the use of bonding authority to provide investment capital. It provides guarantees to investers that, if they develop property that was always outside of the controlled market, it will remain outside of that controlled market or else they will be compensated. And the bill allows for the forgiveness or extension of taxes or other governmental costs to bring presk onto the market.
We cannot force investment, but we must encourage investment. A healthy marketplace is the best safeguard for the supply of housing we need and for the choice to which consumers in a free society should be entitled.
Just as importantly, the new rent control bill continues to protect renters as we must in this incredibly depressed market. Controls have not been lifted as so many believe. Rents cannot go through the roof. Tenants remaining in their apartments will see the same kinds of increases they saw under the old bill -- no more, but unfortunately, for the time being, no less. Those who are lucky enough to find new rental housing in a rent-controlled building will see at most a 2 percent difference in the vacancy allowance over the old law.
The much discussed multi-unit decontrols take place no sooner than 1989, and only if two rather stringent conditions are met: The vacancy rate in the District must have reached 6 percent (the current rate is 2.4 percent) and a fully funded assistance program for the needy must be in place. Should we reach a 6 percent vacancy in four years, we would have created a buyer's market that should keep prices reasonable. And even at that point, we will have decontrol only of units that become vacant.
For those choosing to stay in apartments, rent control will continue. Furthermore, vacancies cannot be created by landlords through unjustified evictions or tenant harassment; the new law includes very strong tenant protection provisions.
Of the 20,000 single-family houses that are used as rental property, only 5,000 were subject to rent control under the old law. This is because, under that law, those people who owned and rented four or fewer units were exempt. Under the new law, further exemptions are being allowed for four or fewer people -- not corporations or partnerships -- who own those houses. This is a relatively small but equitable change. In addition, the new rent control law ensures that the protections of rent control for those who have it will be in effect for 6 1/2 years -- not for the four years as provided in the old bill.
This legislation is not an overnight cure. Our housing problems were long in coming; they will be long in going. But at least we have the beginnings of a solution because a majority of council members, with every political advantage to the contrary, took that first difficult step.