DESPITE EVIDENCE to the contrary from other cities, both Mayor Walter Washington and the City Council continue to believe that rent control will solve the city's housing problems. Instead of exploring ways to gradually eliminate it, the council has extended it for three more years while allowing land-lords to impose a long-desired, albeit limited, rent increase of between 2 percent and 10 percent. That increase goes into effect May 1 and will, no doubt, result in continued dissatisfaction from landlords, who think it's too little, and from tenants, who think it's too much.
The District government doesn't appear to be ready or willing to face up to the housing situation. For example, there are at lease 2,500 vacant homes in the city that cannot be used until they are rehabilitated; the city government owns a sizable number of them. That's the conclusion of a recent report by the General Accounting Office, which identified these abandoned units after examining the city's 1975 water-meter records. City officials have only mildly protested those findings and have even admitted that they are probably still valid. Yet city officials apparently plan to do nothing rehabilitating those homes that the city owns or about requiring absentee landlords to renovate their homes, although there is money on hand from various sources to do the job.
Another example of not facing housing facts was the recent action by the City Council, requiring land-lords to give eviction notices of 180 days instead of the present 90 days. According to the council, the "eviction moratorium" would enable tenants to find adequate housing before they were displace. In discussing the extension, council member Douglas Moore pointed out that at least 1,500 households have received notices of eviction in the last four months - an unprecedented number that results in large part from the increase in the number of rental units being converted to condominium units.
The mayor and the City Council should instruct the Department of Housing and Community Development to quickly renovate those abandoned homes and put them back into use. While that's being done, the housing office should figure out a way to make sure that lower-income and elderly persons who have been recently evicted are first in line to apply for those homes. City officials might then examine just how the city got into this situation in the first place. Other cities have identified a number of ways to solve this problem; the local housing office should be required to do the same. As for the emergency resolution on eviction, the mayor should send the bill back to the council. Aside from the question of legality, such a measure may wind up doing more harm than good. Council member John Wilson put it just right at this week's council meeting: "The people of the city have no idea where we're going as far as housing is concerned . . . We have no housing policy."