- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2000

It has been studied every which way since the District was granted home rule in the mid-1970s. Congress has toyed with the notion of phasing it out, the control board has pushed it aside for five straight years, and D.C. lawmakers are more frightened of it than term limits. It is rent control, and its socioeconomic downsides have created slums and regulatory nightmares for landlords and developers. Rent control laws, which initially were intended to maintain a stock of decent, affordable housing for families and people on fixed incomes, have had the opposite effect.

Take Butler Gardens, a low-rise complex of 12 buildings that opened in the early 1960s near the Frederick Douglass Home in Anacostia. Home to middle-class blacks, Butler Gardens had a private swimming pool, community center, recreation facilities and a waiting list. Its owners maintained a clean, attractive and "gated" community until the late 1970s. By then the D.C. Council had established rent control laws, prohibiting landlords from charging rents according to the market. As a result, many landlords opted to convert their properties to condominiums. Some developers turned their interests toward the suburbs. Other developers and builders who stayed were forced to cut back on upkeep in order to turn a profit. What happened to Butler Gardens, which by the mid-1990s had become a neglected and decayed hotbed of drug dealing and violent crime, happened elsewhere. Today, while such rental units are definitely affordable, one can hardly call them all decent.

Moreover, there are far fewer. According to a new study conducted by Nathan Associates and commissioned by the Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, 756,510 persons lived in about 200,000 rental units in the District in 1970. Many, like Butler Gardens, were in Southeast. By 1998, however, that number had dropped by nearly one-third (521,426 residents in barely 160,000 rental units).

The loss of rental housing also meant a loss of revenue for the District. Residents fled to the suburbs, where taxes were lower and decent housing was plentiful. Instead of having their tax dollars to improve the quality of life for remaining residents, taxpayers found themselves overburdened by not only urban blight but also by increased demands for social services.

In its report, Nathan Associates recommends the District lift rent controls and give developers a strong signal that the city is indeed moving toward urban renewal. In this it echoes two separate studies since 1994, one by Holland & Knight and another by the D.C. Business and Regulatory Reform Commission. What they all agree on is this: When housing rents are kept artificially low by rent controls, housing will deteriorate and taxpayers wind up footing the bill.

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