THIS TIME THE D.C. Council was on the right track. Having abused its "emergency" legislative authority so often to escape political heat from tenant constituents, the council exercised its special power properly to keep them heated this winter. By an 11-to-2 vote, the council memebers approved a bill permitting rent increases to cover the rising cost of fuel oil. That is an obviously unpopular move, but a necessary one. In approving rent inceases, the council members followed the lead of Mayor Barry, who had faced up to the problem and sent them a bill in the first place.

It is a true emergency, too. Fuel oil costs are soaring, and it is unrealistic and unfair to expect property owners to absorb these extraordinary increases and to keep on buying more oil with the rents they're now collecting. Under the measure, owners will be permitted to raise the rents according to a formula reflecting the percentage rise in heating costs as a part of the total operating costs of apartment buildings.

There is one harsh catch: money received under such increases is to be subtracted from the across-the-board rent increased scheduled for next spring under the city's rent-control law. Property owners should be able to recover the full cost of increased oil prices, for those expenses are beyond their control. The council should take another look at this restriction before the spring rent increases take effect. Aside from that shortcoming, the measure is reasonable -- and not, as some tenants predictably charged, some sort of wicked plot to keep rich villains in the money.

Tenants are understandably upset, for many a financially strapped family is threatened with further hardship caused by oil price rises this winter. About one-third of all the housing units in the region use heating oil -- and already the price has doubled in less than a year. But property owners are not in business to make grants and loans to tenants; utility costs are included in rents. Whatever public and private financial aid can be mustered should be coordinated by area officials. Regional leaders are working on ways to help, and the situation is urgent. In the meantime, the lifting of unrealistic rent ceilings -- which work to decrease the supply of rental housing, anyway -- is a positive step.