ON APRIL 30, the District's rent control law will expire. It is a safe bet, however, that the D.C. government will choose to extend rent control in some form for the next several years. Rent control in the city, which began its current incarnation in 1974, covers approximately 120,000 rental units around town. In most cases, the law limits annual rent increases to 10 percent or less. Over the last two years, however, the rent increases have been under 5 percent.
Rent control has been based on the admirable hope that it would benefit the city's poorest tenants with a pool of rental units by ensuring that landlords could not raise rents high enough to force the poor to move out. But rent control has chiefly aided higher-income tenants who could afford to pay rents at the market rate and, instead of helping the poor, it has discouraged some landlords and developers from maintaining their properties or building new ones.
In the weeks ahead, landlords, tenants' associations and those who will plead the case of the poor will argue the merits of rent control at hearings and forums around the city. Landlords and builders will say that rent control stifles the marketplace and takes away money that could be used to make repairs or renovations. The tenants' associations will say that rent control is the only way of keeping a roof over their heads at an affordable cost. The D.C. Council members who will make the decision will do so knowing that a large percentage of the electorate is made up of renters who favor rent control.
The question is whether rent control has worked in the District. The answer is that it has not.
At a time when about 13,000 District residents are waiting for public housing, new apartment construction is at a standstill. Around the city, it is estimated that there are some 5,000 abandoned and vacant housing units that, because of rent control, have not been put back on the rental market. In some rent- controlled apartments that the poor do have, needed repairs and maintenance go undone, in some cases, because of depressed rent revenues.
Two rent control bills have been introduced by council members. One, introduced by Chairman David A. Clarke and cosponsored by five other members, mainly calls for "a commitment to the continuation of rent control." Another, put forth by John Ray, recognizes the need to phase out rent control, although over a six-year period. Mr. Ray's bill also calls for a $15 million rent subsidy to help low-income tenants, the lifting of controls on vacated apartments, and offers of tax waivers and tax incentives for builders.
Whatever the District government decides, it must recognize that the goal of clean, safe and affodable housing has not been accomplished. As Mr. Ray said, "the goal is a policy that will take our children out of the kind of housing that is . . . a special disgrace for the nation's capital." Rent control has not met that goal.