Washington, D.C., has some of this country's strongest pro-tenant legislation, including rent control, conversion restrictions, and eviction limitations. Although many people attribute such strong statutes primarily to the liberal city councils Washington has had since gaining home rule, they actually are a continuation of long-term governmental regulation of housing, according to a just-released study on the history of housing regulation in the District of Columbia.

The strict controls placed on D.C. housing have come about primarily because of the city's special characteristics. Among these are a transient population, a large proportion of renters, and a high demand for a limited rental housing supply, according to the report, which was prepared by Steven J. Diner, chairman of the Department of Urban Studies of the University of the District of Columbia.

That paper is one of three on the history of housing policy in the District of Columbia written by faculty members of the UDC Department of Urban Studies and presented and discussed at a seminar last week.

The studies were funded with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of a project to find new applications for the humanities. The major emphasis of the UDC work was to apply history in making public policy.

Housing controls go back almost two centuries in the District. In 1791, George Washington issued the first building regulations, mandating that the exterior walls of all structures in the new capital were to be of stone or brick, a requirement he lifted five years later.

The city council first passed its own building regulations in 1822, supplementing the rules that had been laid down by presidential orders. Relatively few new controls were added until after the Civil War, when the city experienced a rapid population growth. Many poorly built structures were put up, especially in the alleys in the interior of city squares. Housing the poorest of Washington's residents, those alley dwellings persisted as a concern to housing reformers well into this century.

The city's next period of rapid population expansion, during World War I, produced sharp increases in the cost of rental housing. In response, Congress imposed rent control for the first time in Washington's history, in 1918.

Rather than coming at the impetus of the city's residents, the new statute resulted primarily from the legislators' alarm over the number of federal employes who rejected job offers in Washington because of the city's high housing costs.

As was true with later rent control legislation, representatives of the real estate industry immediately challenged the measures in court. They raised some of the same objections as now, arguing that such price limitations constituted the taking of private property without compensation.

Congressional and presidential support for rent control continued until the mid-1920s. Even fiscally conservative Calvin Coolidge supported price controls, but as a way of avoiding having to pay federal workers higher wages.

Rent control was imposed once again at the outside of World War II and continued in effect until 1953.

Although it was one of the first cities to impose rent limitations, Washington took much longer to approve a comprehensive code to regulate the condition of its housing stock. In 1955, which was 15 years after a model ordinance was proposed, the Board of Commissioners approved such statutes. Even then, a major reason for the code's passage was the federal government's requirement that cities have such an ordinance before they could receive urban renewal funds.

Like so many housing regulations in Washington's history, the new housing code was much easier to approve than to enforce, despite optimistic predictions by city officials, Diner says in his report. One assistant commissioner estimated it would take only "several years" before the entire city was in compliance with the new code.

Housing reformers' euphoria over the new statute was short-lived. Within a few years of the code's passage, many citizens were complaining of the city's failure to provide funds for an adequate number of housing inspectors.

That problem was compounded by the reluctance of some city officials to remove low-income families from substandard dwellings when there was a major shortage of adequate, affordable residences.

Much of the responsibility for this lack of low-cost, decent housing in Washington rests with the national government, according to Irving Richter, the UDC professor and author of another of the studies presented last week, on the impact of federal housing policies on the District.

The federal government affirmed its commitment to providing decent housing for all Americans in the Housing Act of 1949. That and later federal legislation provided funds for the construction of much of the city's public housing, but also promulgated urban renewal policies that led to the destruction of much moderate-cost housing. This was particularly true in Southwest, where large numbers of low-cost dwellings were replaced with government office buildings and more expensive housing.

That situation was just one of many cited by the studies' authors where the primary beneficiaries of housing policies and regulations were upper-income persons rather than the city's poorer residents. During Washington's first two rent-control programs, lower-income individuals almost never used the enforcement mechanisms, according to congressional testimony presented at that time, Diner stated in his report.

In spite of the strong, new pro-tenant measures the city council has enacted since home rule, "housing regulation has benefited the middle class more, because they know their rights and understand how to use them," Diner said at the seminar.

Another of the seminar participants, D.C. Council member John Ray, used that conclusion to buttress his current stand on legislation the council is considering that would allow tenants to make repairs to their units and deduct those costs from the rent. "Too often, the policymakers haven't dealt with the poor with legislation and funds to provide decent, affordable housing," he stated.

"Repair and deduct won't solve the problem. It will take a massive infusion of money. Poor people have major concerns that repair and deduct, I doubt, will deal with."

While agreeing with Ray that many of the city's housing regulations often have served low-income tenants poorly, other seminar speakers emphasized the need for repair-and-deduct legislation. "There was a lot of legislation on the books, "but tenants were not aware of their rights and were not exercising them," said Denise Belton, chairman of the Southeast Cluster Tenants Coalition.

"Repair and deduct will work for tenants," Belton asserted. "You just need specific guidelines on how to use it."

The ongoing problem of enforcing Washington's housing regulation was emphasized by Jerome S. Paige, another UDC professor and coauthor of the third study presented last week, on citizen housing movements. "There would be no need for repair and deduct if the city enforced the laws on the books," he said at the seminar.

Paige and the other authors are hopeful that their reports will help politicians, city officials, and citizen activists to better understand the history of housing policy in the District and help them to avoid mistakes made in the past.