I support Referendum 001 on rent control and will vote for this measure at the ballot box next Tuesday. A "for" vote is important for these reasons:
A referendum is a legitimate right of citizens in the District of Columbia, conferred by our home rule charter.
The vote will be an expression of popular will on an issue of overriding importance to District residents.
Passage of the measure will strengthen tenant protections.
A vote for it will raise the debate on this issue to a higher level as the city moves to address the crisis in rental housing.
Opponents of the measure have asked, "Do we want government by referendum?" The fact is that the ballot box is a very accessible forum for public expression. By contrast, I can recall the three days of public hearings, the many nights of ward forums, the packed city council chambers and long lines of frustrated citizens unable to enter the District Building in March to speak out on this critical issue. Those lucky enough to present testimony were outnumbered by those who could not.
During the legislative session on April 30, the D.C. Council acted, but with the greatest of difficulty and by the slimmest of margins. A series of amendments was defeated by 7-to-6 votes. To say that the law represents a delicate balance of views is to beg several questions:
Did these 7-to-6 votes represent a mandate for this law or merely a victory for political tacticians and clever lobbyists? Exactly what balance would be disturbed? Should political expediency be the sole arbiter of public policy?
The District's housing vacancy rate is currently 2.1 percent, which means that at any given time, only two out of every 100 housing units in the city are available for occupancy. A rate of 5 percent is considered "tight." The median gross cash rent paid by Washington-area renters -- $296 per month -- is the fifth highest of all Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the nation with a population in excess of 1 million. Nearly half of area households paying more than 30 percent of their incomes made less than $10,000.
Some say that low-and moderate-income people are not helped by the regulation of rents. But just take a look at who is fighting extraordinary rent increases at the Rental Accommodations Office or ask any $10,000-, $20,000-or even $30,000-a-year renter household whether he needs some limitation on the rent he has to pay. Don't ask whether the renters think that "housing production incentives" are provided by rent control or whether the vacancy in Washington will ever approach 6 percent again. Just ask them, as they sit down to budget their modest incomes, whether they need stronger or weaker protections. Without question, rent control strengthens their economic position; Referendum 001 would strengthen it even more.
Most observers will agree that the law passed by the D.C. Council in the spring effectively weakened the regulation of rental property in favor of what was thought by some to be strengthened production incentives. For example, the law increased the minimum rate of return (offered to landlords through the "hardship" procercent; it exempted single-family housing units now covered by rent control when they become vacant (potentially 1,200 or so units); it exempted from controls the 20 percent or so units in buildings that are now 80 percent vacant; and, most ominously, it raised the possibility of total rent decontrol if the vacancy rate in the District of Columbia rises to 6 percent. All but the hardship provision are subject to the referendum vote.
To many tenants, these section represent an assault on their pocketbooks, either presently or prospectively. That the law weakened the regulatory fabric is clear; what perhaps is not so clear is what this means in regard to what may be called "production incentives." Referendum 001 seeks to strengthen tenant protections that were weakened in the law by striking only four sections by popular vote. With the exception of the section on the Distressed Property Improvement Program, the referendum does not restrict producen it is not absolute. Voluntary ("70 percent") agreements for rent increases in exchange for services or improvements are already contained in the law and would be continued after the referendum.
We need to vote for Referendum 001 in order to continue an orderly march toward progress. The Committee to Save Rental Housing is not alone in this belief. The D.C. Democratic Party, through its state committee and various ward organizations, is supporting the referendum; most Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, community housing organizations, labor unions, the Archdiocese of Washington and others have joined the effort to ensure passage of the measure. A vote for Referendum 001 is a vote for progress, for policy and for people.