Bay State to Decide Rent Control's Fate

Cambridge's image as Peking-on-the-Charles hinges on state-wide vote on housing

CALL it Peking-on-the-Charles or the People's Republic of Cambridge, this university town has long had the reputation for being what conservatives love to call a ``hotbed of liberalism.''

The city has a Peace Commission, the mayor is both black and gay, and the high school was the first in the country to distribute condoms.

Then there's rent control, perhaps the most powerful symbol of this left-wing city. Liberals say the practice, whereby the city sets rents for many apartments that are below market rates, maintains a diverse population in a hot real-estate market. Conservatives says the practice exerts a Soviet-style control over an owner's ability to determine rents and to evict tenants.

Rent control's days may be numbered, however. Massachusetts voters will vote tomorrow on Question 9, a referendum that would abolish rent control in Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline.

The policy is being rethought around the country. Property-rights advocates in six California cities are challenging rent-control laws. Other cities, including New York and Washington, also are taking a hard look at the practice. Cambridge enacted rent control 23 years ago in what was termed a housing emergency to provide affordable housing for low- to moderate-income people and elderly people on fixed incomes.

``It will be devastating for people who rely on rent control,'' says Janet Murray, a coordinator of Food for Free, a collective that distributes donated food to the poor. ``That's a cross-section of the population, not just low-income but moderate-income people, civil employees, letter carriers, store clerks, and teachers.''

Cambridge resident Gloria Lecesse said the Rent Control Board intervened when her landlord wanted to raise the rent substantially. ``How can you ask someone who brings home $800 a month to pay $800 in rent? It's baffling. If rent control is voted out, I don't have any hope.''

``The ballot question dumps a lot of people out of their housing summarily as of January,'' says Cambridge Mayor Ken Reeves.

He probably won't be one of them. It's people like the mayor, who makes $43,000 and lives in a $400-a-month rent-controlled apartment, not Ms. Lecesse, that Question 9 supporters say are a prime example of why rent control is not doing what it was intended to do.

``Upwards of 87 percent of people on rent control are advantaged - white, single, college-educated, and in their prime earning years,'' says Denise Jillson, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Homeowners Coalition, a group of large realty companies and small property owners that is pushing Question 9.

``Rent control places the burden of providing affordable housing on property owners and in many cases the property owners are less affluent than the tenants,'' says Ms. Jillson.

JEFFREY MIRON, a professor of economics at Boston University, who prepared a survey on rent control for the Massachusetts Homeowners Coalition, says that rent control is a fundamentally flawed policy.

``There's nothing in the way rent control was set up to insure that it's needy people who get units. There is no means testing,'' Dr. Miron says.

The Cambridge Rent Control Board regulates rents and evictions and determines violations of laws. Its opponents have horror stories of people getting caught in the web of the bureaucracy.

Retiree Helen Petrillo invited her daughter and her family to live with her after her daughter's home burned. The parents moved to the basement. But someone reported them for having four families in a three-family dwelling.

``The hearing officer decided we should raise the house so the basement could conform to the rules and regulations,'' Mrs. Petrillo recalls. That was going to cost more than $100,000. They battled the Rent Control Board for four years, until increasing publicity, as she puts it, ``released us from their clutches.''

``I don't think it's constitutional for the government to tell you what to do with your property, property that you sacrificed to buy,'' she says.

Rent-control proponents admit that the bureacracy may have become overly cumbersome, mainly to plug loopholes, and too complex for the average Joe without a lawyer's help.

But rent-control defenders say the system has changed. ``The Rent Control Board has loosened up a lot in favor of property owners,'' says Steve Meachem, of Save our Cities Coalition, which is fighting Question 9.

Rent-control opponents have tried numerous times in the past to have the policy abolished. But with 70 percent of Cambridge voters being tenants (many are students or professors at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), they've lost every time. This time, the Massachusetts Homeowners Coalition got it on the state ballot, after the State Supreme Judicial Court said it was legitimately a state issue.

But supporters disagree, saying state voters have no business interfering in local housing policy.

Regardless of the fate of rent control, Cambridge is changing. Harvard Square, the heart of the city that was once filled with funky shops and smoky coffeehouses, now gleams with the upscale: a Benetton's, a Body Shop, and a Laura Ashley. The Square ``looks like a theme park of itself,'' one resident grumbles.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.