A hearing on amendments to the District's rental housing and conversion laws drew battalions of white-haired women and representatives of landlords and real estate interests to the City Council chambers this week.

After five hours of testimony before the council's Housing and Economic Development Committee, most of the armies had melted away, but one fact stood out: the District has no centralized collection of information on how the city's rent control and tenants' rights laws affect the housing market.

John Hampton of the D.C. Rental Accommodations Office told the council that his agency has "no research staff and no research capability whatsoever" for analyzing the housing market, and that the basis for past regulation of rental housing has been essentially a "political process."

Councilwoman Charlene Drew Davis (D-Ward 4), who presided, replied that when a decision on "continuance or discontinuance" of elderly tenants' rights to keep apartments after condominium conversions past 1983 is made, it should be made on the basis of a clear set of facts concerning the impact of the law.

The first task, Jarvis said, is to formulate the right questions. When Hampton objected that "formulating the questions is an extremely technical job," Jarvis said that "conceptualizing" the effort would have to precede any money allocated to accomplish it.

Miriam Jones of the Department of Housing and Community Development, testified that 200 elderly persons had benefited from the Rental Housing Conversion and Sale Act of 1980. She said that lifetime tenancy for the elderly is sometimes offered in private deals in order to get support for a conversion.

Jarvis focused the hearing on an amendment to the act, which provides that, for the three-year life of the law, renters over age 62 with an annual income of less that $30,000 are entitled to stay in their apartments even if the building goes condominium or cooperative.

Two other amendments -- to the Rental Housing Act of 1980 -- are also under consideration. One would reduce from 10 percent to 3 percent the amount by which landlords can increase the rent on vacated apartments; the other would require the city's rent administrator to consider the impact on tenants when deciding whether to grant a landlord's hardship petition for rent increases.

All three amendments were proposed by Council Members Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large) and cosponsored by Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8).

In June 1980, there were incorrectly reports in the press that the conversion law would protect the elderly tenants "for the rest of their lives" when the protections in fact extended only for the three-life of the law. The misconception became important when Mark Plotkin of the Parkview Tenants Association, decried the "lifetime tenancy provision" as a "cruel hoax" and "semantic sleight of hand."

Councilman John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) strenuously objected. The law states that the protections "shall be effective for three years" after enactment, which was on Sept. 10, 1980. Wilson said that "the biggest vote-getters in the city" had not supported the provision. He had pushed it through the council once, Wilson said, but he might not do it a next time, "because I wouldn't want to perpetrate a cruel hoax."

John Borger of the Washington Board of Realtors spoke against the proposed amendment, saying, "We feel that the amendment is unnecessary, since any elderly tenant is already protected under the Rental Housing Act of 1980."

The elderly spoke for themselves. Kathryn Eager, a slender white-haired woman, stepped to the microphone and plunked down a bag from which she extracted a bottle of water and a glass.

Amid the din of drums and trumpets from a parade in the street below, she said numerous jurisdictions -- including Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York -- give lifetime protection to tenants. Pounding the table, she decried the $30,000 "means test" that works against "elderly too rich for Medicaid and too poor for modern technology."

No council member attended the entire hearing Wednesday, although Jarvis and Wilson stayed for most of it.