AS THE NIGHTS get cooler in town, a foreboding comes over District residents who heat their homes and apartment buildings with oil. Will heating oil costs -- which have already jumped 50 percent in the last year -- leap out of sight? And if they do, will the city's rent-controlled landlords pay the higher prices to heat apartment buildings, thus losing money? Or will they make a business decision to cut off the heat? For the poor who live in houses, will it be a question of using money to heat or eat?

Landlords, renters, and homeowners, share the problem. So far, however, only the city's landlords are pressuring the mayor and the city council to do something special for them. They propose that the city allow apartment building owners to pay this September's property taxes next year. The tax bill would be paid when the landlords get their annual rent increase and seek an additional rent increase that would pass the higher oil bills on to renters.

That's a selfish and bad idea. The city government is not the landlords' rich uncle. The city needs its tax revenues now. That proposal would help just one group of people, the landlords, by freeing them of the extra cost and worry of higher heating oil bills. But it would leave everyone else, renters and homeowners, in the cold.

What's needed is for the landlords to share the higher cost of heating fuel with their tenants. The city should allow the landlords to pass through half of the cost of higher fuel bills immediately. And for the poor and those on fixed incomes, what may be necessary are government subsidies to help pay their part of the fuel bill; something like food stamps, maybe fuel stamps. Congress is considering such subsidies. But even if they are approved, this legislation probably would not take effect this year. So the city may have to act. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis intends to propose that the council establish a committee to determine how the city could help this year.

Whatever is done needs to be done soon.