THE COMING EXPIRATION of the city's rent-control legislation, on Oct. 31, has precipitated a heated but useful discussion of this vexing issue. High rents are driving many people out of Washington even as the local government tries to encourage people of all income groups to live in the city. But evidence from around the country indicates that rent control does not help those who need it most - the elderly and low- and fixed-income tenants. Rather, it tends to lower rents for middle- and upper-income people. Many landlords are finding that, in the face of rent ceilings and escalating utility costs, they cannot provide adequate upkeep and make money at the same time. As as result, a considerable number of the city's 180,000 rental units are being coverted to condominiums - increasing the demand on the remaining rental housing.

To characterize landlords as "rent gougers," as some do, is convenient but simplistic. The fact is that, in the five years since a ceiling was put on rents, most landlords have tried to work out a practical rent-control program with the city government. But the city has placed an incredible burden on the landlords. Its program is a picture of confusion: no staff accountability to the rental-accommondations commission that is supposed to monitor the progress of rent control; a growing backlog of landlord appeals for rental increases; and much bureaucratic overlap.

The city council will soon act on some sort of new rent-control measure. Many council members afeat that any criticism of rent control will be politically costly. But while they may be tempted simply to extend the present program, we would argue against it. It would be better to undertake a revision. New legislation should address the administrative nightmare that now characterizes the program. The landlord-appeals process must be designed, and the existing backlog must be cut. In keeping with the commission's proposal for rental increases of 2 to 10 per cent, rental adjustments should be made.

Ultimately, the council must look at how the city can get out of the rent-control business althogether - without imposing undue hardship on the elderly and people with lower incomes. One good step to take right away would be to exclude luxury units from controls. Tightening up the program and ultimately phasing it out may not seem politically popular, but failure to do so will have a disastrous effect on the city's housing stock. And that would surely be the most unpopular action of all.