There is unexpected good news from the D.C. Council, which has begun to move on the issue of rent control. Instead of routinely extending the same law, which expires at the end of this month, seven council members yesterday voted to substitute a different bill, which has several new provisions. Before that, the bill before the council contained no reforms to help rejuvenate the city's deteriorating rental stock. Fortunately, a lot of quiet negotiating had been under way, and we believe the new bill contains some good ideas.
One is that vacated apartments will be removed from rent control four years from now, if the city's vacancy rate then stands at 6 percent. Currently, it is 21/2 percent. Supporters say the provision will encourage owners to bring the city's 5,000 to 9,000 vacant apartments back on the market.
Another improvement would eliminate vacant single-family homes from rent control. Currently, there are about 5,000 single-family homes under rent control. The plan is designed to encourage owners to bring such units up to housing-code standards and back into the rental market.
A third change would establish a distressed property program aimed at badly deteriorated rental properties likely to be shut up. The goal would be to allow landlords to renovate these buildings and keep them open, thereby preventing their tenants from being forced out. This would be achieved by, for example, waiving water and sewer fees, or waiving tax liens, or providing no-or low-interest loans.
Another change is designed to ensure builders and landlords that new units or any units not now under rent control would not be placed under rent control without getting compensation in the difference between the controlled rent and the fair market rate of the property. The law also contains a $15 million tenant-assistance program designed to help tenants pay their rents. The current law has a smaller provision that was never funded.
Rent control, especially as it exists in the District, does not protect the city's poor and elderly and does nothing to help infuse the city's rental stock with new and renovated apartments. It does nothing to help alleviate the shortage of decent and affordable apartments in the city. It does nothing to help landlords make an honest profit to keep their units in good condition. The bill the council voted in favor of yesterday is a stride in the right direction. We hope the majority will vote for the bill again in two weeks, when it will have a second reading, and that Mayor Barry will then sign it.