Why City Candidates Battle Over Buildings

The best way to start a political argument in Cambridge is to bring up real estate.

In a city plagued by the Boston area's soaring property values, candidates for the Cambridge City Council say they find their strongest selling points are on rent control and zoning regulations.

The conservative Independent candidates are attracting support through their attacks on rent control this year, while members of the liberal Cambridge Civic Association--David E. Sullivan, Alice K. Wolf, Saundra M. Graham and Francis H. Duehay '55--are promising to restrict development in the city. Two Independents--Ed Cyr and incumbent Alfred E. Vellucci--also support rent control but scorn involvement with the CCA, which both call a snobbish product of the academic community.

The election will determine the future of rent control and development in the city. Currently there is a pro-rent control majority on the Council but their one vote margin could slip away this Tuesday.

Construction sites sprouted all over the city this summer and fall--notably in Harvard and Kendall Squares--making the issue of development an extremely visible one for Tuesday's election. Conflicting solutions to the problems of development have even drowned out the traditional rhetoric against expansion by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This year the universities are only two particularly large developers among many others.

When MIT comes up, it is usually because of the so-called Simplex project, a proposed 27-acre project on university-owned land that would include apartments, a luxury hotel, office and light industrial space. City activists say it will destroy the nearby neighborhood by pushing up property values and increasing traffic problems.

Harvard is one of several developers making over southwest Harvard Square, and it has also come under fire for buying houses in neighborhoods all over the city. Councilor Vellucci recently persuaded his colleagues on the current City Council to endorse a non-binding order to Harvard to stop buying houses--but his was one of the few anti-Harvard gestures of this campaign.

The CCA candidates talk mostly about whatfirst-time candidate Jonathan S. Myers calls the"Manhattanization" of Cambridge--foundationcraters in Harvard and Kendall Squares, high rentspushed up by development, snarled traffic andparking problems that they say are too costly toresidents to be labeled as merely frustrating.

"If you didn't have people campaigning and youjust went around and asked people what the issueswere--development is hot," says CCA incumbentAlice K. Wolf. "More and more people areunderstanding the connection between the pressureof development and rising property values," shesays.

The CCA supports stricter zoning laws and a"linkage" system that would require companiesbuilding new projects to contribute a certainamount of inexpensive housing in return for zoningconcessions.

The Independents blame homeowners' highproperty taxes on the fact that rent-controllandlords make less from their buildings than theywould without the controls, and consequentlycontribute less to the city budget. They also saythe system hurts small landlords by subjectingthem to regulations that they often find itdifficult to follow.

Both sides offer opposing interpretations ofthe tight housing market, which has put 2300people on the city waiting list for publichousing, and spawned posters on telephone polesthat advertise $600 finders' fees forrent-controlled apartments.

CCA candidates say the rent control system isessential to prevent further housing woes, whilemost of the Independents blame it for tying up themarket in both rentals and condominum sales.

Both sides also cite a study on rent-controltenants that was released this summer. Based on apoll by Abt Associates, a local consulting firm,the study shows that 70 percent of cityrent-control tenants make less than the averagecity income of $22.590. It also reports that 9percent of rent control tenants earn 50 percentmore than the mean.

Several Independent candidates, led by rentcontrol opponent William H. Walsh, say the 30percent making above-average salaries arefree-loading on the system, paying fractions ofthe rents they could afford. They say they wouldprefer to give housing subsidies only to the poor.

CCA members say the study vindicates theirassertion that rent control helps mostly those whoneed it in order to stay in the city, and they addthat without the system, housing costs will drivethe middle class out of the city, leaving onlywealthy homeowners and tenants of public housing.

According to H. James Brown Jr., a specialistin housing policy who directs the K-School'sState, Local and Intergovernmental Center, cityvoters have reason to worry about high rents andproperty values. He says the housing market of theBoston area is "very much in crisis and muchdifferent than most parts of the country."

Young single people are "doubling up andtripling up" to share rent in apartments that oncehoused fewer people, says Brown, adding, it ismore difficult for people starting families tofind homes here, because they need more space.

Conflicts over housing and development issuesare also particularly intense this year becausereferendum battles are not crowding themselvesonto the candidates' platforms.

The last municipal ballot, in 1985, carriedthree referendum questions that broadened thesubjects of debate: candidates could declaimagainst the testing of nerve gas in Cambridge,debate whether pornography was a form of sexualharrassment, or criticize Harvard Real Estate forselling small houses to its faculty members on apreferential basis.

This year, the only referendum on the ballot isan "advisory" question asking voters whether thecity should require more police foot patrols inneighborhoods.

The city was nearly convulsed by a bindingreferendum on limiting animal experimentation incity laboratories. However, the CambridgeCommittee for Responsible Research, the localanimal-rights group sponsoring the referendum, wasunable to collect the 3800 voters' signaturesnecessary to place it on the ballot. The matter islikely to be resolved by a special three-membercommission that will report to the City Councilafter the election.

The only other attempt to create a referendumwas an attack on the city rent control system,which also failed to reach the ballot because itssponsor, realtor Fred Meyer, did not collectenough petition signatures. If passed, it wouldhave allowed rent control landlords to sell unitsto tenants of three years or more.City Councilor ALFRED E. VELLUCCI