THE UNFORTUNATE refrain from the audience Tuesday night, as a coalition on the D.C. Council pushed through some badly needed reforms on rent control, was "shame, shame, shame." From the start, those who have argued against any changes in rent control have implied that any council member who is for changes ought to be tarred and feathered. It has also been implied that the new rent control law will throw the poor and the elderly out on the street. The first point is just silly. The second point is serious and misleading.
The fact is that very little will change immediately for District tenants. They will face rent increases on vacant apartments of 12 percent instead of 10 percent. Landlords can also request 12 percent for so-called "hardship" rent increases, again instead of 10 percent. Under the old law, however, landlords could get a vacancy increase and a hardship increase. Under the new law, if a landlord receives a hardship increase, he cannot receive a vacancy increase for 12 months. That means less rent will be charged to tenants.
The biggest misunderstandings have been whipped up over vacancy decontrol (taking apartments off rent control as they are vacated), with those against it claiming it will dismantle fair and affordable rental housing. First, under the new rent control law, vacancy decontrol will not begin until April 30, 1989. Second, it will not begin at all unless the city's rental vacancy rate is 6 percent or higher (it is now about 21/2 percent). Third, it will not commence unless the $15 million rent assistance program for tenants is funded and operating. Finally, so long as one continues to rent the same apartment through and past April 30, 1989, one's apartment will still be under rent control.
Supporters hope that the vacancy decontrol provision will also encourage landlords to put more apartment units on the market to reach the 6 percent figure. There is also a distressed properties provision in the new law that is geared toward those dilapidated buildings that landlords sometimes simply close down because it is too costly to bring them up to standard while the rules limit the rent they can charge. Under the new law, there is some encouragement for landlords to keep those buildings open and keep those tenants from being displaced. Landlords can get relief from the city, which can free up funds through a waiving of water and sewer fees, waiving tax liens or by getting low- or no-interest loans.
Finally, fears have been stirred up over a provision in the new law that calls for vacancy decontrol of buildings that are now at least 80 percent vacant. In order for a landlord to do that, he must first file a petition. Once it is granted, he must find new apartments for each of his tenants and pay their relocation costs.
None of these changes is cause for shame. They represent progress and innovation and should be welcomed.