An awful lot of people put landlords in the same category as bill collectors, IRS agents and baseball umpires. No matter how effectively landlords argue against changing the city's current rent control law, many District residents just won't buy it. Wrongly, in our view, they see landlords on one side and the poor and elderly on the other, and on that basis they are thinking of supporting the referendum to remove key provisions from the rent control law.

That would be a grave mistake, as grave as thinking that only landlords and developers support the current law. Yesterday, several respected church, civil rights and community leaders added their support for keeping the law as it is. They urged District voters to vote "AGAINST" Referendum 001, which is on the D.C. ballot Tuesday.

They were not from the real estate firm of Scrooge & Legree. They represented the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Operation PUSH, the Coalition of Concerned Clergy and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, along with former council members Jerry Moore and Douglas Moore.

The referendum proposal would take out four key provisions of the rent control law that the council passed last spring. Those provisions removed some apartment units from rent control -- that is what seems to frighten some people. Single- family dwellings, dilapidated apartment buildings, nearly empty apartment buildings and vacated apartments would be removed from controls. But the law contains several protections for tenants and strict guidelines.

Before any vacated apartment is removed from rent control, the vacancy rate for rental housing must be 6 percent -- more than twice the current figure -- and a $15 million rent subsidy plan must be funded. But if you remain in your apartment, it will still be under rent control. Nearly empty apartment buildings can be removed from rent control only after the landlord finds decent housing for tenants and pays their moving costs. So that landlords will be encouraged to restore dilapidated buildings, not shut them down and shove tenants out, the city will waive tax liens or water and sewer fees.

The Rev. Edward Hailes, local NAACP president, fairly noted yesterday that "the law fully protects tenants against unjustified rent increases and harassment by landlords." The Rev. Ernest Gibson of First Rising Mt. Zion Baptist Church added: "We oppose the referendum because it would be tampering with a comprehensive law . . . it provides needed protections for tenants." Harry Wheeler, an ANC commissioner in Ward 5, termed the existing law "the first positive sign that the city is getting serious about improving rental housing."

The rent control law should be left alone. Voters can protect it by voting "AGAINST" the measure on Tuesday.