THE D.C. COUNCIL'S committee on consumer and regulatory affairs has approved a rent control bill and sent it to the full council. After several weeks of meetings throughout the city, reams of reports, and more than 36 hours of public testimony from experts, landlords and tenants, the committee has decided that the city's current rent control law should be extended.
This is simple, but very shortsighted. Ask knowledgeable people whether the District's apartment rental situation is better now or worse than it was four years ago and the honest answer will be that it is no better and, in fact, worse. In December a single mother with six children lost her apartment when it was gutted by fire. For the last 21/2 months she has been trying to find another affordable apartment, and she has found none. At times, she has been forced to stay at a shelter for the homeless or surreptitiously stay with her sister, who lives in a public housing project. The reason: no affordable housing.
There are estimates that in the District are some 5,000 vacant apartments, apartments that could be renovated and put back on the rental market. Those vacant buildings are not in Georgetown or Foggy Bottom or Dupont Circle. They are, by and large, in the city's poorest neighborhoods, areas where they are needed the most. At the same time, the people who can afford to pay higher rents are gladly living in their rent-controlled apartments while the needy are sometimes forced to stay in ramshackle places.
So far, the rent-control debate has not lacked interesting ideas. One council member feels that rent control should be tied to a person's income. Another has put forward a plan for rental subsidies. Yet another would have units decontrolled as they become vacant, a move that has not automatically resulted in exorbitant rent increases. A compromise put forth by Councilman John Ray would focus on apartment owners who are falling into such bad financial shape that they may close down their units; it would establish a plan to keep the apartments open, set up a repair schedule and defer or forgive some outstanding debts of the owner and also permit him a reasonable profit.
But the rent control measure that will be presented to the council contains no new ideas.
The city's realtors say they need higher percentage-rate rent increases and a higher percentage for hardship claim rent increases. Most of those ideas from council members and some advocated by realtors would infuse the city's rental pool with much- needed revenue. Meanwhile, a recent letter from the city's consumer and regulatory affairs department says it will take three years to "focus on the impact of the distressed properties and tenant assistance programs, economic incentives, and any decisions on decontrol."
See you in 1988.