Voter turnout was low, but emotions ran high yesterday among voters on the issue of rent control in the District's first election referendum, which sharply divided landlord and tenant groups and the city's politicians.

A slim ballot, featuring just the referendum and five school board seats, and yesterday's damp, chilly weather kept voters away from the polls in large numbers, according to election officials.

Efforts by supporters and opponents of the rent control referendum to get out the vote appeared to have only limited success in targeted Wards 1 and 2 which include Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, downtown and other neighborhoods where high concentrations of apartments made the issue seem more immediate.

"We will have a low turnout. Not a record low, but pretty low," Emmett H. Fremaux Jr., executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, said late yesterday, before the vote was counted. Recent off-year school board elections have drawn as few as 35,000 voters registered in 1979 and 39,000 in 1983. Voter turnout yesterday was 46,764 among 262,000 registered voters, or 17.7 percent of the electorate, according to final figures.

Despite the controversy over rent control, Fremaux said the issue apparently lacked the drawing power of the 1981 D.C. tuition tax credit initiative, which drew 89,000 voters to an off-year election that overwhelmingly rejected a proposition to allow tax credits for parents paying private school tuition.

Some observers said potential voters may have been put off by the complexity of the referendum and by doubts about whether it would ultimately increase or decrease the rental housing stock.

At Lafayette Elementary School in Northwest, only 379 voters had cast ballots by 3 p.m., compared with 1,775 at the same time last year, officials said. Poll workers reported similarly paltry turnouts throughout the city.

Among those voters who did turn out, Referendum 001 was the major attraction, with most expressing strong support for its stated goal of strengthening the city's rent control protections by repealing four new provisions that generally would make it easier for landlords to lift controls on dwellings once they are vacated.

"I'm a homeowner, but keeping strong rent control is important to me," said Shirley Jones, who dropped off her daughter and voted at Bancroft Elementary School in Mount Pleasant. "We've worked hard to improve this school . . . and I'd like to keep people with children in this neighborhood" who may be priced out of the market without rent control.

Marion Richardson, a welder who owns a home in Southeast Washington, said he was moved to support the referendum because of the difficulty two cousins from South Carolina had in finding an apartment.

"It took them a year to find a place located in an area where they could park their car and feel safe to walk outside without getting their heads knocked off by thugs," he said. "Without strong rent control it would've been even harder to find a nice place."

But other voters said the referendum was shortsighted and could do damage. "We've got rents under control, and we gotta keep them that way," said Otis Bridges, a Ward 1 homeowner. "We've got to keep it the way it stands now. I'm against taking chances with it."