Boston wrangles over capping high rents and condo conversion

Raymond L. Flynn, the populist mayor who runs marathons and rides snowplows through the streets of Boston, encountered a roadblock Wednesday in his attempt to overhaul the city's housing policy.

The City Council, by a 7-to-6 vote, rejected a plan favored by Mayor Flynn that would have instituted citywide rent controls and regulated the conversion of apartments to condominiums.

Instead, the council approved an ordinance put forward by Councilor James M. Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Housing. The ordinance strengthens protections for some tenants and also benefits landlords by allowing them to raise rents (within certain parameters) each year.

This is the second major setback for Flynn since he took office 10 months ago. The first was in June, when the state legislature denied his appeal for the right to implement a parking excise tax to help the city balance its lopsided budget.

With the housing vote, Flynn's relationship with the 13-member City Council is off to a rocky start. Councilor Kelly said the mayor did not negotiate in good faith and took him to task for ''instilling fear in the people of Boston just to get a vote.'' Some of the councilors ''were threatened with political retribution'' to pressure them into supporting the mayor's plan, he said.

Many of the councilors had hoped to settle the hotly debated issue Wednesday, but Flynn said he would not sign the package as it stands. Instead, the administration will talk with councilors during the next few days ''to determine if there is any flexibility,'' says Richard Gatto, the mayor's staff secretary. Based on those discussions, the mayor will decide whether to veto the bill outright or to work for a compromise package, he says.

Kelly aide Paul Walkowski says, ''The mayor would be smart to work for manueverability through the chairman of the Housing Committee.'' Wednesday's vote sent a loud message to the mayor ''that the council respects its chairmanships,'' he says.

Kelly says he has the votes for an override in the event of an outright veto. He says the ordinance strikes a balance between the ''rights of the property owner'' and protection of tenants who are ''truly needy.''

Boston, like 200 other cities in the United States, already has a rent-control system in effect. Half of the city's rental units, however, never came under rent control. Of the 85,000 rental units that did, 65,000 are now decontrolled - freeing landlords to raise rents to market level. Low-income, handicapped, or elderly tenants may file a grievance to protest increases.

Boston tenants now pay the highest rents in the nation, according to a survey released in January by the National Association of Realtors' Institute of Real Estate Management. The skyrocketing rents here are the result of an acute shortage of affordable housing caused primarily by housing abandonment and condominium conversion.

The mayor's plan - to bring the 65,000 decontrolled units back under rent control and to tightly regulate condominium conversions - unleashed a torrent of controversy among landlords, real estate groups, tenants, neighborhood organizations, and city officials.

Lewis Finfer of the Massachusetts Tenants Organization says the City Council failed adequately to address the needs of tenants who are being evicted because of condominium conversion. Although the council did extend the eviction protection period to as many as five years for some tenants, ''the bottom line is that 1,000 tenants now under notice know they're out.'' Mr. Gatto of Mayor Flynn's office says the needs of these people will be the first priority in discussions with city councilors.

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