A group of D.C. tenants won approval yesterday for a Nov. 5 referendum on whether four controversial provisions of the city's recently enacted rent control law should be rescinded.
The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, rejecting claims by landlord and business groups, ruled that the tenants had obtained enough valid signatures of registered voters -- 18,026 compared with the required 14,160, representing 5 percent of the city's electorate -- to place the District's first referendum on the ballot.
The measure will give the city's 283,000 voters, about two-thirds of whom are tenants, a chance to approve or reject the package of the four challenged rent control provisions that were enacted 7 to 6 by the D.C. City Council in April.
It also sets up an election dispute with some of the city's most entrenched business groups, including the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, the Washington Board of Realtors and the D.C. Builders Association, all of which vigorously contested the tenants' petition drive for the referendum.
A majority "yes" vote on the measure would remove the most debated portion of the city's rent control law, a section that would decontrol rents on vacant apartments in 1989 if a 6 percent vacancy rate exists then and a tenant assistance program is in effect.
Tenants maintain that the vacancy rate is currently 6 percent, while landlords say it is 2.4 percent.
In addition, voter approval of the measure would remove three other provisions that would decontrol rents on vacant single-family homes owned by four or fewer persons; apartment buildings that were 80 percent vacant as of last April 30, provided tenants were properly relocated, and units in distressed buildings for which an improvement plan has been approved by Mayor Marion Barry.
All four provisions have been suspended pending the outcome of the referendum. If voters reject the referendum, the provisions would go into effect. Voters will not be able to cast ballots on the four provisions separately, but only as a package.
Gottlieb Simon, one of the tenant leaders of a group calling itself the Emergency Committee to Save Rental Housing, called the election board's action "a new chapter in D.C. politics, with an increased emphasis on grass roots."
"We launched [the signature drive] with hope rather than cer-tainty," he said. "There were any number of uncertainties. We had a short amount of time. It was summer. Our success is very sweet."
He cautiously predicted a November victory, saying, "As long as the landlords don't succeed in some sort of a disinformation campaign and the tenants get out to vote, we expect to win."
On the surface, the business groups contended that the petition effort violated a variety of city election regulations.
But the business leaders also did not want a referendum on the ballot that could undo some of the weakening modifications of a law that landlords and developers have long fought.
Donald R. Slatton, executive vice president of the apartment group, whose members include most of the city's biggest landlords, said the referendum "is really not a reasonable way to run a government. If you're going to do this, why have a city council?"
He said the business groups have not decided whether to challenge the legality of the referendum in a lawsuit. During the fall campaign, he said, "We'll make industry spokesmen available to any group to make sure they know tenants are being misguided by some of their leaders."
Slatton contended that two of the provisions on the referendum -- the ones dealing with distressed properties and buildings with 80 percent vacancies -- "benefit tenants more than landlords."
During the District's 11-year experience with home rule, voters have had several opportunities to act on initiatives, such as the one that created the city's lottery. But the referendum differs in that voters will have a chance to rescind a portion of a law, rather than create a law.
Elections board members Valerie K. Burden and Shirley W. Mundle approved the referendum at yesterday's meeting, one of several the panel has staged this summer to discuss the tenant and owner claims about the measure. Chairman Edward W. Norton was absent.
City Registrar Joe Baxter said election officials checked all 28,000 signatures of purported registered voters submitted by the tenant group and rejected about 10,000 of them, an action that still left the tenants with more than enough to meet the 14,160 requirement.