RENT CONTROL is a tough and emotional issue, one that generates intransigence on all sides. In the few public gatherings on rent control in the District so far, the same old stubborn stands have already been taken. Some are unalterably in favor of D.C. Council Member John Ray's "phase-out" rent control bill, others unalterably for council Chairman David Clarke's extension of the rent control law. Tenants, angry over poor living conditions but also frightened by the thought of eviction, want rent control to continue, period. Landlords and realtors, smoldering over the red ink of negative cash flow and the ever increasing costs of maintaining apartments that are often more than 25 years old, want rent control to stop now -- end of discussion. All sides have seen fit to announce their inflexible positions.
What should happen now? A serious consideration of alternatives and conditions should begin. It is a fact that some of the city's tenants are forced to live in apartments where heat and hot water are rare visitors. Families with children are sometimes crammed into one-room efficiency apartments while, in other buildings, smaller families struggle to pay rent for five or more rooms. Many tenants try to ignore the rats, mice or roaches that scurry over them at night. A Southeast Washington woman sees more and more boarded-up apartments and wants to know what will be done to keep her neighborhood from becoming a ghost town.
Landlords and apartment owners watch the prices rising steadily for every sort of construction material, from sheetrock to paint, and note that the only thing with a cap on it is the rent they can charge. Even some proponents of rent control will admit that there is no profit in being a landlord or apartment owner under rent control, and acknowledge that they would drop out of the business, too.
Other landlords and apartment owners see a cycle that results in abandonment: a landlord with too little revenue fails to keep his building in good repair. Tenants complain about conditions and call for either a rent rollback or repairs the landlord cannot afford. The result is one more vacant building or one more building with substandard living conditions.
Rent control, in its current incarnation, has done nothing to alleviate these problems.
If $15 million in rent subsidies is not enough, what will be enough, and where will it come from? If the immediate decontrol of newly vacated apartments seems too abrupt, why not phase in decontrol more slowly to guard against huge rent increases? It is time to stop arguing and time for a frank appraisal of the city's aging and deteriorating rental pool. Some sort of phase-out is essential for the well-being of the tenants involved, not just for their put-upon landlords.