Rent Control Puts Students, Owners at War

Rent control has been the most contentious political issue in Cambridge for three decades, inspiring petitions, ballot referendums, lawsuits and appeals.

Throughout all the controversy, the issue has often seemed incidental to the lives of Harvard undergraduates.

But rent control has an important, if unnoticed, effect on the entire undergraduate population.

Pro-rent control groups says the measure, by ensuring affordable housing for lower and middle class citizens, helps keep Cambridge diverse. Without it, students might not have the same experience when they walk through Cambridge or talk to its residents.

If rent control were abolished, "Cambridge would have more of an appeal for a higher income crowd," says Malcolm Kaufman, a member of the pro-rent control Cambridge Tenants Union. "It would probably become more homogeneous, much whiter, much richer and much more professional."

But Linda Levine, co-chair of the anti-rent control Small Property Owners Association, disagrees. "Studies have shown that it creates gentrification, not diversity," she says.

Regardless of whether rent control promotes diversity, numerous students who live in thecity's rent-controlled apartments say they supportthe measure because it makes going to college moreaffordable.

Edward L. Bertrand '92-'94, who lives in arent-controlled two-room apartment off Mass. Ave.,says his apartment would be "prohibitivelyexpensive" on the open market.

His landlord, who asked not to be identified,say Bertrand's apartment, which he now rents for$311 per month, would cost $600 on the openmarket.

The landlord says she loses $500-$600 a monthin rents because of rent control. She says themeasure makes it more difficult for her to carefor her building.

If there were no rent control, "I'd have tocharge a little more," the landlord says, "but I'drealize that $500 is prohibitive for a collegestudent."

One Harvard student says he sides with thelandlord on the issue of rentcontrol. Johan H.Hueffer '95-'96, who is an editor of The Crimsonowns a city condominium which he sublets duringthe summer.

He says rent control costs him between $100 and$200 a month in lost rents.

Hueffer says rent control is not a soundeconomic policy. "It distorts the marketmechanism," he says. "It makes it tougher for lowincome tenants to find housing."

Levine says Harvard students have been tenantsin her building on Mount Auburn St. She says mostof them did not need the financial assistanceprovided by rent control.

"Their parents were paying the bills, so theycould have afforded market rates," Levine says.

Levine is one of hundreds of landlords who aremoving to abolish rent control.

In hopes of overturning rent control policiesin Cambridge and Boston, opponents of rent controlrecently gathered thousands of signatures onpetitions to put a referendum on the state ballotin November. The question of whether thereferendum will make it to the ballot is now beingdecided in court.

But tenants say that without controls, rents inthe city would be too high.

"Rents here are totally obscene," says Kaufmanof the Cambridge Tenants Union. "They areastronomical, extortionist. Who the hell pays thiskind of money for rent?"

Rend control was enacted three decades ago inpart to prevent expansion by Harvard and MIT intoCambridge's old neighborhoods. It reduced theincentive for Harvard to become a landlord bymaking it more difficult to make money by rentingspace.

"The amount of territory taken up by theuniversities was such that it brought up thepossibilities of Harvard and MIT meeting somewherenear Central Square," says Michael H. Turk, whoheaded the now defunct Harvard Tenants Union.

"If they expand and eliminate apartments orjack up rents, where are those tenants going togo?" he asks.

Turk also says the Removal Ordinance of 1979,which prohibited conversion of rental apartmentsto other purposes, helped prevent universityexpansion.

But Turk says rent control has not badly hurtHarvard, which is both the largest tenant andlargest owner of rent-controlled property in thecity.

"Harvard has been able to use the system to itsown advantage, often to the detriment of tenants,"says Turk, who is now co-chair of the CambridgeTenants Union.

Turk says Harvard constantly makes capitalimprovements to buildings--a process which enablesthe University to petition the rentcontrol boardfor rent increases.

Because of this process, Turk says there is a"generous rate of return" on capital improvements.

But Harvard Real Estate President Kristin S.Demong says rent control actually prevents theUniversity from recovering the money spent forcapital improvements.

"We don't recoup our costs," she says. "[Rentcontrol] is not providing any sort of returns thatare reasonable."

She says Harvard Real Estate owns approximately700 rent controlled units, rents for which rangefrom about 50 percent to about 90 percent ofmarket value.

Demong says Harvard has not taken a position onrent control, but she believes it should bereformed. "It's extremely administrativelycumbersome," she says.

Reforms should include "making it easier tomake legitimate improvements [to property],"according to Demong. She says rent control shouldalso be means-tested to avoid subsidizinghigh-income tenants