Brookline battle rages over hefty rental hike allowed by town board

Low- and middle-income residents are being priced out of Brookline, a tenants' group charges, by a 16.32 percent rent increase this year for all rent-controlled apartments. The Brookline Tenant Union warns that unless some members of the current Rent Control Board are replaced Brookline will become a town where only the rich can afford to rent an apartment.

``The flight of the middle class from Brookline is already taking place,'' says Tenant Union spokesman Mark Levy.

Majorities on the town's Board of Selectmen and Rent Control Board (appointed by the selectmen) are ``looking out for the landlords' interests and not the public's interests,'' Mr. Levy says. Others in town don't agree.

Michael Merrill, an incumbent selectman running for reelection in the May 7 town election, says: ``While 16 percent is a significant increase, it is not significant enough to make the middle class move out of Brookline.''

He notes, however, that the rent hike may be enough to force poor residents to relocate.

Mr. Merrill, a homeowner who rented an apartment in town in the mid-1970s, says he thinks that those in Brookline who can afford to pay higher rents should be charged higher rents. He says that those less able to pay should be granted exemptions from rent hikes on a case-by-case basis.

Higher rents, Merrill says, help increase the ``income stream'' of rental housing units and ultimately boost tax assessments on apartment buildings. He maintains that because of rent control an inordinate portion of the tax burden in Brookline rests on the shoulders of homeowners.

Census figures for 1980 showed 23,600 housing units in Brookline, of which 66 percent -- or 15,700 -- were rented apartments. Roughly half the rented apartments are regulated under the town's rent control program.

Demand for apartments in Brookline, which has a population of some 58,000, is strong. Estimates are that there is a 1 percent vacancy rate for apartments here.

``If these people have their way, there will only be wealthy people living in Brookline,'' says Estelle Katz, a 12-year member of the Rent Control Board who voted against the 16 percent rent increase. She, along with Merrill and two other candidates, is running for selectman May 7. Two of the four will be elected.

Ms. Katz says that a majority of the current Board of Selectmen, including Merrill, ``aided and abetted'' the passage of the 16 percent rent hike.

Merrill says he felt the 16 percent increase ``was too high.'' But he declines to state specifically what percentage increase he feels would constitute a fair rent hike for both tenants and landlords.

Ms. Katz also declines to say what percentage rent hike she would consider fair.

The Brookline Property Owner's Association, a landlords' group, has suggested that a 33 percent rent increase would be warranted this year. In the past 14 years, since the inception of rent control in Brookline, the Rent Control Board has granted annual rent increases averaging 5.8 percent, according to town statistics. The board has voted to increase rents every year except 1974 and 1983.

Over the years the board has relied on a staff-produced assessment of landlord expenses to determine how much rents would be increased, according to Roger R. Lipson, director and counsel of the Brookline Rent Control Board. Last year the staff suggested a rent hike of 2.4 percent in 1985.

But the Rent Control Board rejected the 2.4 percent suggestion and instead decided to use a new formula to help determine how much rents should increase. The formula examined the ratio of the landlord's net operating income from an average rental building, compared to expenses of running an average building. The result was the 16.32 percent rent increase, more than four times the rate of inflation. The Rent Control Board approved it in a 4-to-3 vote last September.

The approval meant that starting last Jan. 1 the average apartment rent in Brookline went up by $69 a month.

``We feel it is an extremely inflationary way to run a rent control program,'' says Tenant Union spokesman Levy. ``It was simply a way to boost rents as much as possible.''

Others say that the 16 percent adjustment was needed to compensate landlords who had suffered from what they say was a history of low rent increases under Brookline rent control.

In addition to waging a grass-roots campaign to elect pro-tenant members of the Board of Selectmen, the Tenant Union has sued the Rent Control Board in an attempt to have the increase overturned. The trial, scheduled for late March in Suffolk Superior Court, has been postponed indefinitely.

Town meeting members, spurred by outraged tenants, voted 129 to 81 in a special January session to clarify the rent-control bylaw. The amendment specifically requires the Rent Control Board to rely exclusively on the board staff's suggestions for rent increases. In effect, the measure declares the board's action in granting the 16.32 percent increase null and void.

Review of the amendment by the state attorney general's office is pending.

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