The D.C. Council convenes today to vote on a bill to extend the city's rent control law. Unfortunately, the rent-control extension bill that passed a council committee and is now before the full council is a carbon copy of the current statutes. In light of all that is known on the subject, it is foolish to think that the complicated problems of the city's tenants can be solved simply by extending rent controls as they now exist. Tenants, landlords and everyone who has an interest in strengthening the vitality of the District have a right to expect more from their elected officials.
There are 5,000 to 9,000 vacant apartment units in the District at a time when affordable and decent apartments are too hard to find. The city's rental housing stock plummeted by 20,000 units from 1971 to 1981. At the same time, the number of apartment units in the suburbs increased by 16,000. The D.C. Council has an opportunity to demonstrate that it wants new apartment construction in this town. That is not the signal it will send if it simply extends rent control as it exists. A member of the council has been displaying a list of 29 recently sold "vacant apartment buildings," using it as evidence to say that rent control has not stifled new investment in rental housing. That is misleading, real estate officials counter, pointing out that most of those buildings are single-family homes that had been converted to rental units and were too small to be under rent control in the first place. They add that much needs to be done to bring those vacant units back onto the market.
Landlords who operate very large apartment complexes, such as the 549-unit Fort Chaplin Park, have an easier time making a profit. The same can hardly said of landlords of much smaller properties. Too man been forced out of the rental market because they have been unable to make an honest profit under the city's rent control law. In hearings before the council earlier this year, several testified that they did not have the revenue to make the repairs and renovations that their tenants expect and deserve.
Only five states have jurisdictions that maintain some form of rent control, and the trend in those is toward more lenient laws. It would be easy for the politicians to listen to those lower-income tenants who are convinced that controlled rents are the only thing they can depend on. But that way is merely to confine the poor to a deteriorating rental stock that badly needs rejuvenation. The city's tenants deserve more and better than an extension of the current law.