In an effort to persuade District voters to support a referendum to remove key provisions of the city's rent control law, some of its backers have produced information that is woefully inaccurate. The new law, adopted by the D.C. Council last spring, contains some badly needed reforms to stimulate the city's stagnant rental pool by giving landlords and developers incentives to refurbish or build new rental units. It would do that by removing single family homes, dilapidated apartment buildings, nearly vacant apartment buildings and vacated apartments from rent control, but only under strict guidelines and certain conditions.
These four "vacancy decontrol" provisions have been attacked with scare tactics. Some referendum supporters have claimed that the new law will force the poor and the elderly out into the streets. One widely circulated press release says "vacancy decontrol will go into effect for everybody in 1989." Wrong. The city's rental vacancy rate must first reach 6 percent and a $15 million rent subsidy program for the poor must first be funded. And regardless, if a tenant stays in his apartment, it will remain under rent control.
The same document then declares that rents "skyrocketed" under vacancy decontrol in New York -- by 75 percent in Manhattan and by 100 percent in Queens. But a study prepared for the New York City government showed that average rent increases in decontrolled apartments rose "modestly" and no higher than the consumer price index between 1978 and 1984, says Peter Salins, chairman of the urban affairs department at Hunter College in New York. He adds that rent control only helps those who could afford to pay market rates and that a healthy rental pool is one that includes movement by tenants -- to a larger apartment for a growing family, to a better apartment by a successful professional. Those units are then freed for other renters.
Rent control stops movement; tenants will stay where they are to keep their below-market-rate rents. It also discourages new apartment contruction. Would developers build apartments that must have rents of $400 to have a decent profit when rent control keeps rents in that area at $250? The answer is no, because no one would leave the controlled rental units. "Rent control is musical chairs without the music and everyone sitting down," Mr. Salins says. "It creates scarcity and undermaintenance because landlords cannot earn enough income.
The vacancy decontrol provisions in the District's law would bring some life back into the city's rental pool. It would encourage better maintenance and provide some incentives for new construction. Removing those provisions by voting in favor of the referendum would be an egregious mistake. The rent control law should not be changed.