IF YOU BELIEVE in the free lunch, try swallowing the latest pie-in-the-sky condo bill served up by nine members of the District Council: if tenants don't want their building turned into a condo, they just get together and vote that way -- and that's that. Or if they do vote to let the owner convert, all low-income elderly occupants -- and that's a household where a spouse, brother or sister is 62 years old or more -- are entitled to lifetime rental rights, at the rate in effect when the tenants voted. Not bad, eh?

Sure, and Santa Claus is your landlord. This half-baked proposal is predicated on the same shaky council thinking that produces rent-control laws that stick the landlord with the tab for inflation -- and hang the cost of the heat. It is a follow-up to the council's short-sighted series of temporary housing laws that are reenacted every time a 90-day "emergency" expires. It should go back to the drawing board.

At least the council members stitched in a few provisions that could be part of a serious response -- including some relocation assistance, a tax of up to 4 percent on the value of condominium sales and discounts on this fee for owners who sell or continue to rent to low-income tenants. But the real effects of inflation on tenants won't be offset by tenant elections or other rec-room democracy statutes.