IT DIDN'T GENERATE quite the same pre-vote national publicity that Proposition 13 in California did, but Question K in Baltimore -- a hotly debated rent-control amendment to the city charter -- may have political implications for many other cities. After visits from some of the same West Coast celebrities --including Howard Jarvis (against) and Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden (for) -- Baltimore voters have approved a cumbersome, expensive and unrealistic rent-control program. In the same breath, voters reelected a mayor and a city council chairman who opposed the rent-control question.
Specifically, Question K -- which now undergoes a court challenge -- calls for rents to be rolled back to levels of Nov. 1, 1978, plus between 4 and 6 percent. Property owners also could raise those rents by 4 percent to 7 percent beginning in January. For any greater increases, they would have to get the approval of a five-member commission to be made up of two landlords, two tenants and one homeowner. Not only is this a formula for a first-class administrative mess, as the District government learned the hard way; it also encourages a decline in maintenance and management services and an increase in abandoned or converted rental properties.
Tenants with places to live may not care, though -- and when enough of them turn out at the polls, their message can defy appeals to more reason. More often than not, the arguments from landlords as well as tenants work to prevent much rational consideration by elected officials anyway. In Baltimore, a heavy-handed, spend-and-scare campaign by rent-control opponents backfired, too, and is credited with egging on many additional let's-fight-city-hall voters.
A stabilization of rents is always desirable, and people who cannot afford adequate housing need assistance from government, through subsidies and tax relief based on certified need. But like other cities that have plunged deeply into the thickets of rent controls, Baltimore faces the grim prospect of an even worse rental market than exists there today.