It is distressing that the debate over rent control has wandered so far from the real issue. It is equally distressing that the D.C. Council's committee on consumer and regulatory affairs has reported out a proposed law to give us four more years of the same old thing.
The real issue, when we enacted the District's first rent control 11 years ago, was how to help low-to moderate-income people obtain decent, safe and sanitary housing at affordable rates. That's the real issue today.
The rent stabilization program was supposed to provide stability for the short term, until the mayor and the council could develop plans to deal with our private rental housing supply. The latter was never even remotely addressed until Council Member John Ray introduced his proposal this year.
Whether one agrees or disagrees that price controls benefit the poor, there can be no question that Ray's proposed vacant-and distressed-property programs benefit only the poor -- because they focus on the buildings and the areas where low-and moderate-income citizens live.
Rent control has become the motherhood- and-apple-pie issue for tenants at the upper end of the economic ladder. They vote their pocketbooks, and few elected officials have the courage to tell them that the long-term effect of their self-interest is to cheat the poor and mortally wound our city.
Not only do they vote, but they also form tenants' organizations, and they have succeeded in bringing at least some low-income and elderly citizens under their umbrella, even if it requires scaring the daylights out of these people with the specter of enormous rent increases.
At the council hearings, I found it peculiar that few tenants organizations could work up much enthusiasm for a tenant assistance program, which is the only way to ensure that people who can't afford what they need will have decent housing.
As I stated in my testimony March 1, "In some form, there must be housing stamps in the same way that the government provides food stamps. With food stamps, a person can shop at Safeway or at Giant or somewhere else. Individuals have a choice about where they buy and what they buy."
With tenant assistance, we don't have to wait for new construction or renovated properties to start getting poor people and middle-income people into better housing. By providing direct assistance to families in need, we can open up the broader rental market to them. We can make it possible for them to move out of rat-infested slums and into the two-and three-bedroom apartments in the quiet, tree-shaded neighborhoods of Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues.
An effective tenant assistance program -- and vigorous enforcement of the laws prohibiting discrimination against families with children -- can do much to create a healthy diversity in many neighborhoods.
Yes, we need to continue rent control in some form, but it must be tied in with a permanent plan to replace it soon. Anyone who looks honestly at our city's present and future rental housing supply for the poor and middle class must conclude that Chairman Dave Clarke's bill to extend rent control offers them a false promise. The bill is a push by the affluent to protect themselves and to keep out of the law any measures to protect others.
Providing low-interest bond financing, tax abatements and deferral or forgiveness of water and sewer fees to save distressed properties and to restore vacant and boarded- up buildings are measures to create good housing for low-and moderate-income citizens, and to stop the migration of young, middle-class blacks into Prince George's County.
The mayor and the council are quick to endorse the importance of expanding black entrepreneurship. They encourage blacks to invest in property and gain the economic strength to set their own course. But government has become the silent partner in a system that takes the black man's property away.
There are many black owners of small rental buildings who are on the verge of losing all their savings because they were unwise enough to invest in rental property. They have met the enemy -- the Rental Housing Act.
The law ought to be so clear and uncomplicated that it can be understood without hiring a battery of lawyers. The large white-owned corporations can afford the high-priced legal talent. The small black businessman who owns one or two buildings can't.