About a dozen influential District ministers will take to the pulpit Sunday to urge their parishioners to vote no on the rent control referendum Tuesday, climaxing a brief but well-timed antireferendum campaign orchestrated by Mayor Marion Barry, D.C. City Council member John Ray (D-At Large) and real estate interests that have provided more than $20,000 in backing.
The referendum, which was placed on the ballot by a citywide group of tenants and labor leaders, calls for the repeal of four provisions of the District's newly revised rent control law that would decontrol rents under certain circumstances.
Real estate industry groups, which favor the new law and fought to keep the referendum off the ballot, have stayed out of the limelight since the campaign began this fall. But behind the scenes, industry leaders have worked with opponents and paid for an antireferendum flier that was signed by church and civic leaders and mailed to more than 100,000 District residents.
"They [landlords] realize that with their being out front, the issue becomes a fight between the landlords and the tenants and they are obviously trying to avoid that," Ray said.
Civic and religious leaders were quietly mustered for the fight by the mayor in a meeting held last month at the Tenth Street Baptist Church, according to Ray.
Yesterday, 12 ministers, including the Rev. Edward A. Hailes, president of the D.C. Branch of the NAACP, the Rev. J. Terry Wingate, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. Beecher Hicks Jr. of the Coalition of Concerned Clergy and the Rev. Jerry A. Moore Jr., a former City Council member and president of the D.C. chapter of Operation PUSH, called a news conference to oppose the referendum.
To counter the forces led by Barry, clergy supporting the referendum are planning to deliver sermons of their own on Sunday, turning up the heat in a campaign that finds partisans on both sides arguing over whose position best serves the housing needs of low- and moderate-income District residents.
Among the religious leaders supporting the referendum are the Rev. John Coursey of the McKendree Methodist Church, the Rev. Ray Kemp of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and the Rev. Charles Briody, a Unitarian Universalist Church minister and a candidate for the D.C. Board of Education.
City Council Chairman David A. Clarke Jr. and council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) also have actively backed the referendum.
The two sides of the question each make the same claim: that their opponents are stalking horses for wealthy interests eager to drain off low-income residents and step up the gentrification of the city's housing stock.
At another news conference held yesterday by referendum proponents, Advisory Neighborhood Commission member Franklyn Malone charged that opponents have a plan to "shift the composition of the city to a more wealthy and white population by removing poor and moderate-income people."
"The obvious result will be a drastic change in the racial composition of the city," Malone said.
But at the gathering of opponents, former City Council member Douglas Moore said it was the referendum supporters who represented white-controlled interests and "Ward 3 residents who have had the best benefits of rent control."
Opponents of the referendum believe the existing rent control law, unchanged, provides incentives to builders and landlords to renovate and increase the city's housing stock, which ultimately will result in more housing.
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who helped fashion the rent control law, said the law represents a compromise between the interests of renters and owners and that it is "designed . . . to stem the hemorrhage both of displaced persons and the people who build housing."
Supporters of the referendum contend the revised rent control law approved by the City Council in April leaves open the possibility of sharp increases in rents that could force low- and moderate-income renters out of their apartments and houses.
Gottlieb Simon, who led the petition drive and is chairman of the D.C. Referendum Committee, said the referendum is the best hope for halting a steady movement of low-income residents out of the city.
"There is a legitimate concern about the future composition of this city and those of us in the rent control referendum movement have that concern," said Simon, whose organization has raised about $3,000. "The fear is that the decontrol will force low- and moderate-income minority people out of this city simply because they don't have the bucks to stay here."
Until this week the referendum campaign was a sleepy one. Members of the Committee to Save Rental Housing and the Referendum Committee, the coalition that gathered 18,000 signatures to place the issue on the ballot, complained that the referendum opponents were purposefully maintaining a low profile and refusing to engage in public debate.
Real estate and landlord groups were saying that they wanted to stay out of the campaign.
"We are not engaged in the fight against the referendum," said Donald R. Slatton, executive vice president of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington.
"Really, we are not doing much of anything," added Tom Borger, a spokesman for the Washington Board of Realtors.
However, Tony Cooper, a spokesman for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said yesterday that "most of the moneys" used to pay for the $20,000 mailing "originally came through the Apartment and Office Building Association and the Washington Board of Realtors. This effort started back in July when they were initially doing the legal challenge of the referendum."
Barry said recently that he will vote against the referendum because he disapproved of the concept of legislating by ballot and felt that the referendum would jeopardize his effort to encourage the restoration of distressed properties in the city. He called together the civic and religious leaders on Friday, Ray said.
"I think more than anything, that brought them out," Ray said. "He asked them to oppose the referendum and told them why he wanted them."