Supporters of the District referendum to restore tight controls over rental housing yesterday savored their narrow victory in Tuesday's election and vowed to seek even more stringent measures in next year's election, even as opponents were brushing off the outcome as insignificant.
Gottlieb Simon, a leader of the coalition that won approval of the referendum, said his group may also campaign against D.C. City Council members who voted last spring to eliminate controls over certain rental property and then opposed the referendum that called for restoring those controls. Six members of the City Council favored retaining stringent rent controls -- one vote short of a majority.
"Our first concern is ensuring an increase in safe and affordable housing in the city," Simon said. "We will continue to assess whether the best avenue to that is to mount an initiative or to elect a permanent seventh vote in support of rent control ."
Among those who fought the referendum and could be targeted when they seek reelection next year are council members William Spaulding (D-Ward 5), Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) and Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large). Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who also opposed the referendum, is not up for reelection but has been mentioned as a possible challenger to council Chairman David A. Clarke, a key supporter of the referendum and leader of the six-member bloc.
Meanwhile, Mayor Marion Barry, who headed a group of elected officials, clergymen and real estate owners against the referendum, said yesterday he would talk to referendum foes on the council about restoring those provisions of the rent control act that were nullified in the election.
"The irony," said Barry, "is that the City Council can reenact" the lost provisions.
However, D.C. law prohibits the council from restoring those provisions for at least one year. The approval of the referendum, by a vote of 22,403 to 21,681, means a return -- with some exceptions -- to the more restrictive rent controls that existed before the City Council passed the current rent control law in April.
Campaign strategists on both sides attributed the close vote to an 11th-hour campaign by opponents that undermined what council member Kane called "the assumption that this is a very knee jerk pro-rent control town."
Tony Cooper, a spokesman for a coalition of real estate groups that opposed the referendum, said the vote was "not a signal of anything" because of the narrow margin and low voter turnout of about 17 percent of registered voters.
"Eight percent of the total registered voters in the city decided that four provisions of the current rent control law exempting certain types of housing from rent controls needed to be repealed," he said. "Another 8 percent decided that they didn't need to be repealed. That is not a victory or loss for anybody."
Cooper said the campaign on behalf of the referendum wasn't aimed at any meaningful change in the city's rent control law but was an attempt to "establish a political victory because they were on the losing side in the legislative process."
Final but unofficial results showed that the measure passed in wards where the highest percentage of renters live: Wards 1, 2, 7 and 8. The election totals also showed that the race for two at-large seats on the D.C. Board of Education tallied more votes than did the referendum -- an indication that many voters were confused about the referendum and opted not to vote on it.
Jarvis said the nearly even split of city voters mirrored the 7-to-6 split on the City Council over the rent control issue.
"I think the public vote reflects the council vote," she said. "The vote on the council was very narrow because the issues are very complex and solutions are not clear."
Jim Henderson, chairman of the Committee to Save Rental Housing, said the victory was a significant one that was nearly snatched away by real estate interests who laid low until the final week or two and then used a group of clergy and elected representatives as a front to advance their views.
"If we had realized soon enough that they were taking a low profile and were having these other people front for them, we would have come up with a strategy to counteract this campaign," Henderson said.
About a week before the election, four prominent clergymen issued a statement opposing the referendum. The mailing of more than 100,000 of the fliers was financed with about $20,000 in contributions from real estate groups.
Simon and Henderson credited Benoit Brookens, an unsuccessful candidate for one of the at-large school board seats, with first suggesting the idea of placing a referendum on the ballot.
One advantage of the referendum strategy, Simon said, is that while the City Council would be free to modify at any time a law approved by initiative, it must wait one year to alter a law modified by referendum.