IN THE MINDS of all too many otherwise thoughtful local leaders, opposition to rent controls is a form of Kamikaze politics: they're safer paying lip service to the cause, even though -- deep down -- they know better. After all, it is simpler to humor tenants by ordering property owners to eat the costs of inflation until they give up and get out of the housing business.

Not so in Montgomery County, though; to ease a transition away from rent controls, County Executive Charles Gilchrist is recommending a series of strong tenant protections dealing with condominium and cooperative conversions, including plans to assist elderly and low-income renters. His proposals, many of which require -- and observe -- county council approval, include five new bills and the addition of more than $300,000 over the next three years for a fund to help poor tenants pay their rent.

The cooperative conversion bill, patterned after the county's year-old condo law, would give tenants first-purchase rights, require 180-day notice if building owners plan to convert rental housing into cooperatively owned units, provide relocation payments and require certain consumer protection measures. Mr. Gilchrist also is asking rental property owners to observe voluntary guidelines calling for rent increases not to exceed 10 percent. The county executive says he has received assurances from about two-thirds of the county's rental property owners that they will comply.

All of these steps would complement earlier responses by Mr. Gilchrist and the county council, including a 4 percent condo-conversion tax to be used in easing "desperate hardships" imposed on tenants. To protect the rental housing still available, the county executive says he will stick to the scheduled expiration of the rent-control law on Jan. 31. While acknowledging that after 10 years of controls the lifting of them will not be "totally painless," Mr. Gilchrist has offered far better approaches to this difficult subject. Public understanding of them -- and county council support for them -- are needed next.