WHO OWNS BOARDW ALK? Playing Monopoly With Rent Control
AMERICAN politics is a power game, we all know it from watching Nixon. But you don't have to go that high up or low down in the structure to see the mechanism at work. City government in Cambridge is a continuing struggle between the City Council, the City Manager, the City Socilitor and the people to determine who will actually control the city. This year the city monopoly game is being played over the issue of rent control.
The rent control law passed by the Council in September was supposed to have rolled back rents to March 1970 levels. However, nothing in government ever happens that fast. City Manager John Corcoran and City Solicitor Philip M. Cronin have continually delayed putting the law into effect. First Cronin, as interim rent control administrator, issued a temporary adjustment of all rents to the current level, delaying the roll-back provision. When he finally announced that roll-back would go into effect on December 1 he confused everyone by issuing 158 temporary adjustments of rents to the current level on the basis of hardship to certain landlords in the city. Landlords said it was unfair for some to get adjustments and others not, tenants and members of the City Council pointed out that there were supposed to be no adjustments without hearings. Two weeks ago the rent control administration agreed to end temporary adjustments and call a public hearing on the question of an across-the-board increase above the March rent levels to account for the increase in Cambridge property taxes.
Corcoran has been using his power of appointment to delay rent control. He has been considering three candidates for the post of rent control administrator for two months and made no appointment.
Corcoran appears before the City Council now and then as a tired man, hunched over the microphone just to say "We're doing the best we can" or "I'll have to consult the city solicitor and get a legal opinion on this." With his deliberate slow pace of dealing with city affairs he doesn't come across as the sort who'll pull a new card out of his sleeve.
But last Monday he did so by quietly firing Joseph A. Spadafora, the man whom he had appointed only two weeks before to assist Cronin as Ex??? Director of rent control. ??? ???
Corcoran fired Spadafora on the basis of Spadafora's police record given to him by a source he refused to identify. Spadafora has been arrested for drunkenness and has had some speeding tickets, but why wasn't this brought up before he was hired? There are other city officials who have more dirt on their records. The fact that Corcoran refused to identify his source is the crucial point. "Someone" brought these violations up because he didn't like the fact that things were being done, and Corcoran, open to suggestion, fired Spadafora "in the best interests of the city."
Whether or not it will be in the best interests of the city remains to be seen. Administration of the rent control law will be greatly slowed down by this action. Corcoran has temporarily assigned someone from the city law department to work in the rent control office and it will take him time to begin work.
The City Council has the power to hire or fire the City Manager, they had the power to pass the rent control law, but the City Manager by using his power of appointment has had more control over the actual administration of the law so far.
Where the people fit in is another question. Each different citizen group has its own political ideology to get across. At the council meeting two weeks ago ??? yet we passed the law for them too."
Ackerman's observation that many of the people for whom the law was passed don't even know about it is a telling one. Most of the people who are vocal in their views about rent control are the ones who have the least to lose. Much of the increase in Cambridge rents over the past ten years is due to the increased housing demand from students and adults just over student age. Many of these people, who come to live in Cambridge for short periods, can afford to pay higher rents, and so the landlord demands more, displacing long-time residents of Cambridge.
The people who cannot afford to ???ay have moved. They are not here ?? get the benefit from the roll-back. A lot of the new tenants are and they are being quite vocal in demanding as much rent relief as they can ???et.
Only occasionally is anything heard ??om the elderly in Cambridge. Sixty-??ree per cent of the elderly persons ??? Cambridge (those over 65) pay ???ore than half their income for rent. ???ast Wednesday's public hearing on rent increases was the first time that anyone representing the elderly spoke out on rent control. Catherine Handley of the Committee for the elderly approached the microphone after most everyone else had spoken. A young tenant jumped up to adjust the microphone for the short grey-haired lady in a prim blue pillbox hat. She didn't really say anything different from any of the other tenants and she wasn't backed up by the rest of the Committee for the Elderly chanting or carrying signs but she was perhaps the only speaker who had sympathy from the entire audience when she asked the question that everyone would like answered, "When will we feel this rent relief?"
The Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee is asking Cronin harder questions and using all the confrontation tactics they can muster to ask them. Monday they held a rally in front of City Hall demanding an end to all evictions and a further downward adjustment of rents. Within the CTOC there are varying degrees of militancy. Bill Cunningham, one of the leaders of the CTOC, hasrefused since May to pay the $25 rent increase that his landlord demanded. After three attempts his landlord has finally succeeded in evicting him, but it took twenty police armed with clubs to do so. The tall, gaunt Cunningham, who often has his children distributing CTOC handouts, appeared at the hearing Wednesday night just after his eviction. The CTOC came into the hearing bearing signs "roll back rents," "no eviction," and chanting. Cronin, in a calm but clear voice, said, "I'm sorry but this is a hearing and it will have to be conducted in orderly manner. You will have to remove those signs." Cunningham's tired voice could be heard distinctly above the crowd, "Keep it up." Cronin repeated his domand three more times. There were eight policemen at the door. Cunningham repeated his order and the signs stayed.
In the end militant tenants organizing in the PL style that Cunningham and a small core of the CTOC are now practicing is probably doomed. Cunningham said Wednesday, "If you have property, you have power."
The Cambridge Property Owners would certainly like to think so. Whenever rent control is discussed Carl F. Barrons, President of the Cambridge Property Owners Association, is there with a carefully prepared statement. Two weeks ago he told the City Council, "This council which had the guts and awareness to vote in rent control without any preparation should realize that it was a sad mistake and vote it out. Cambridge will become a fear-ridden and crummy second class city unless the council takes some action."
Barrons is one of the small landlords: he owns only three buildings in Cambridge, only one of which is covered by rent control. Barrons' main business in Cambridge is a furniture store located in Putnam Square which sells all kinds, all prices and all styles of furniture.
Only occasionally does he get emotional and turn away from his prepared notes. In response to heckling last week his temper rose, "Since when does the public have the right to take the law into its own hand? Since when do tenants get their rights by threatening violence?"
The Property Owners do not need these means. Their battle will be won or lost eventually in the courts. In January the Massachusetts Supreme Court will hear their suit contesting the law's constitutionality. Everyone who has played this game so far will be there. If the judge rules rent control unconstitutional the game will be all over. If not the city government, the tenants, and the landlords can continue to play Monopoly with the rent control issue. In any event the Property Owners are going to keep Park Place and Boardwalk. Rent control may eventually succeed in getting some temporary relief for tenants but at best it will be a stop-gap measure. In Monopoly you win with hotels, not houses.