As members of the D.C. Council begin to count votes on the question of whether rent control should be phased out or extended, some ideas are in the works that would benefit those whom rent control was always designed to help but has not, as well as eliminate help for those higher-income tenants who never needed it.
A key provision in a "phase out" rent control bill proposed by council member John Ray would be the creation of a $15 million rent subsidy for low-income and elderly tenants whose rent exceeds 30 percent of their income. The current rent control law, which expires April 30, contained provisions for a rent subsidy that was never funded. But council member H. R. Crawford has suggested that part of the program might be financed from the city's lottery revenues. Today, council member Betty Ann Kane is scheduled to propose a rent credit bill in which low-income families would pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. In Mrs. Kane's bill, the difference between the actual rent and that 30 percent figure would be given back to the landlord in the form of a credit on his property tax.
Both address the fact that too much of the "help" from rent control has gone to more affluent people who can afford to pay rents at the fair market rate. Even so, more young, middle-income people look to places such as Prince George's County for newer, more affordable apartments with more amenities. At the same time, the city's supply of rental units has dropped substantially. Eighty percent of the city's rental units were built before 1959.
On too many occasions, even landlords who are not Scrooges have walked away from owning and running apartment units in the District because of low profits. The same controls also are partially responsible for preventing them from maintaining those properties.
Mr. Ray's bill would remove vacated apartments from rent control, unless they subsequently are rented to elderly tenants. His bill also calls for sanctions against landlords who refuse to rent to or discriminate against the elderly or families with children.
To provide incentives for rehabilitation of some of the 5,000 abandoned rental units and for construction of apartments, Mr. Ray's bill calls for tax- exempt financing and a "one time" waiver of property taxes and sewer fees.
This is a time when bold and incisive thinking is needed to improve the chances that low-and moderate-income families can find affordable and well- kept apartments in the District. Mr. Ray's bill comes closest to achieving that end.