On April 30, with the District's rent control law about to expire, the D.C. Council passed a new rent control bill that contained needed reforms. The old law has been criticized for stifling the city's rental market by not allowing landlords enough rental income to make decent profits and keep their buildings in good shape. Some 5,000 to 9,000 vacant apartments had been taken off the market. Seven members on the council developed a compromise that extended rent control while giving landlords incentives by providing some exceptions.
Opponents of the new law have gathered enough signatures to put on the ballot in November a referendum on repealing four provisions of the bill. Their claim is that, if the law is not ammended, the city's poor and elderly tenants will be shoved into the streets by soaring rent increases. This is only a scare tactic.
The four provisions that opponents want struck from the law would exclude vacated apartments, dilapidated or "distressed" apartment buildings, buildings that are at least 80 percent vacant and single-family homes. But these exclusions are really quite mild and should be maintained.
First, vacancy decontrol under the new law does not begin until 1989, and then only if the city's rental vacancy rate is 6 percent. It is currently 2.4 percent. Vacancy decontrol would also not begin unless the $15 million in rent subsidies authorized by the law to help poor tenants have been appropriated. In addition, apartments now under control would remain so beyond 1989, if their tenants remained in residence.
Before a building that is at least 80 percent vacant can be decontrolled, the landlord must file a petition, find decent apartments for the current tenants and pay their relocation costs.
Dilapidated or "distressed" buildings are the type that landlords close down because it is too costly to bring them up to standard. The new law encourages landlords not to close down and displace tenants by freeing funds to upgrade the buildings through waiving water and sewer fees or tax liens.
Finally, the number of single family homes that could be decontrolled represents 5,000 units out of 159,000 rental properties.
There are sound reasons to vote to keep the rent control law as it now stands. Repealing the disputed provisions would hurt more of the needy than it would help.