I have been distressed to see how many renters and other voters misunderstand the Nov. 5 referendum on four provisions of the District's Rental Housing Act. Many people have accepted without question the claims of a small group of self-appointed tenant "leaders," without ever reading the law and learning the truth for themselves.

The current law protects tenants against unjustified rent increases, protects them against harassment by landlords, sets very rigid requirements for evictions and places the government fully on their side in enforcing the housing code.

The law also recognizes that a landlord has to make a reasonable profit. More important, the law recognizes that we have a housing shortage in our city, that much of the housing is run-down and that many tenants cannot afford to pay their rent.

With several creative measures, this law can put us on the road to solving the critical shortage of decent housing for low-and moderate-income citizens.

The law establishes a Tenant Assistance Program to be funded with at least $15 million next year, and more in subsequent years, to help low- income tenants afford decent housing suitable for their families. The law provides bond financing, tax abatements and low-interest or no-interest loans for the renovation of deteriorated rental housing.

The law also establishes a Distressed Properties Program to enable tenants, landlords and the city to work together to develop plans for renovating marginal buildings. This is one of the most important measures yet conceived to improve the buildings for the tenants who are living there now. It can be our best hope of preventing further displacement of low-and moderate- income families from our city. Yet this is one of the prorams targeted for attack in the referendum.

The Washington Urban League calls this law the first comprehensive housing policy in our city. It says that the law offers churches and other nonprofit organizations the opportunity to carry out the same type of innovative developments that have been done in New York and elsewhere -- and to do it better.

So when I hear tenants arguing for the referendum, I must urge them to look at who's behind it. Given the basic suspicion between landlords and tenants, I can understand why tenants are inclined to believe those who say this is a law for the landlords and against the poor.

This issue is so important to the future of our city that we must look beyond the propaganda. One must realize there are many players in this game. The most vocal referendum advocates live in decent housing and pay reasonable rents. Are their interests the same as those who live in run- down, rat-infested housing, paying 60 to 70 percent of their income for rent?

Given the economic gap between those who drafted the referendum question and lower-income persons, I find it difficult to accept that the drafters are truly committed to their expressed goal of saving rental housing for the poor. The fact that they are not working in the best interests of the poor is clearly demonstrated by the provisions they have set out to repeal -- the temporary rent control exemption, which is critical for the success of the Distressed Properties Program; the provisions guaranteeing that tenants in buildings that are 80 percent vacant will be relocated into decent housing that complies with the housing code and where the rent is no more than 30 percent of their income or, in the case of elderly tenants, no more than 25 percent of income.

Those are provisions that will most directly benefit low-and moderate-income tenants. The repeal of those provisions would hurt the poor and would not reduce anybody's rent by one cent. What it would do is guarantee that the people who are living in decent apartments and paying reasonable rents will remain protected -- at the price of destroying the provisions that would enable poor people to enjoy the stability of remaining in their present neighboorhoods in renovated rental buildings.

Regardless of what happens with the referendum, housing production is central. That's why churches such as Metropolitan, Vermont Avenue, Shiloh, Union Temple and others are looking for ways to become involved in putting housing on the market. It requires a total commitment from the business community, the government and nonprofit organizations. This law affords us that opportunity.

The Rental Housing Act, unlike any other law I can remember, has a mechanism to measure the effects of its various provisions. It requires an independent study of our city's housing needs and the effectiveness of all aspects of the law in meeting those needs. Whe this report is delivered to the D.C. Council in 1988, it will provide a sound factual basis for revising the law to foster still greater improvements in meeting the need.

The final Rental Housing Act was adopted unanimously by the D.C. Council and signed by the mayor after a full and free debate. You can't run a government by referendum, and no one should know that better than those we elect to represent us on the council. Thus, to preserve that stability, and to preserve the opportunities for improving rental housing for low-and moderate-income citizens, voters ought to reject the referendum on Tuesday.