City Council Postpones Toughening Rent Control
The Cambridge City Council decided this week to postpone voting on an amendment to rent control ordinances which would significantly restrain Harvard and other city landlords' freedom of action.
The measure limits the length of time landlords are allowed to keep units vacant for rehabilitation purposes. If adopted, it would force Harvard to quickly refurbish the long-vacant Craigie Arms apartments--or else risk losing it to the city through eminent domain.
The Cambridge Rent Control Coalition, a combination of about 20 tenants' interest groups, proposed the amendments in response to large property owners' attempts to circumvent rent control by undertaking major reconstruction projects, coalition members said.
"Our primary concern was that a major problem in the city is the pattern of vacating rental units gradually, contributing to deterioration," said Michael H. Turk, a tenants' spokesman.
"This is often done in conjunction with development plans which increase property values and rents," added Turk.
But landlords argued that such repairs are necessary and that this proposal would unduly restrict their freedom.
Harvard. Cambridge's largest landlord, opposes the measure. In a brief filed with the council, the University stated that the measure "would probably result in an unconstitutional infringement" of its rights.
One owner of four rental units, present at Monday's meeting, said the vacancy amendment would merely add to the 17-year-old rent control ordinance's bureaucracy.
"Rent control is already a nightmare for landlords. I practically have to he a lawyer to figure it out," she said.
Cambridge's rent control policy, one of the most progressive in the country, has periodically been strengthened since 1967 and presently covers about 17,000 housing units.
City voters overwhelmingly supported non-binding, anti-displacement referendum last November, from which the measure under consideration has been drawn.
If it passes at the next City Council meeting, scheduled for August 13, the ordinance would affect several currently vacant properties, including the largest, Craigie Arms.
Two years ago, Harvard requested that the 60-unit building he removed from rent control so that it could undergo full structural rehabilitation.
Though the Rent Control Board denied the request in mid-April, the case will probably be in litigation for the next two to three years, according to Jacqueline O'Neill, associate vice president for government and community affairs at Harvard.
Community sentiment against Harvard because of the continued vacancy of one of the city's largest units, is strong, especially among some city councilors.
"I'd like to wring the necks of the people who own Craigie Arms," said City Councilor Alfred E. Vellucci at Monday's meeting.
"But I can't attack the small people, the small landlords too," he said, explaining why he favored postponement of the final decision on the matter.