Thinking and Acting Locally

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer—a truism since the dawn of civilization—but nowhere more evident than in the Massachusetts housing market since the state abolished rent control in 1994. A short history lesson: for years the powerful real estate industry had wanted to end rent control, but real estate tycoons and wealthy companies looking to make even bigger profits were not exactly garnering sympathy. Enter a powerful public relations campaign, in which every elderly widow or recent immigrant dependent on renting part of their home to make ends meet was marched before the cameras to tell their sob stories about not being able to afford upkeep on their property because of rent control.

Since that time we have seen what may be the biggest urban real estate boom in American history, rents in places like Boston and Cambridge skyrocketing out of control as the white-flight trends of the 1970s and ’80s have reversed themselves and cities have become awash in college students, young professionals and wealthy middle-aged people looking for a shorter commute. With no more rent control, the Bay State has become the most expensive state in the country for renters.

As for Cambridge, from 1993 to 2001 the going rent for a studio, one bedroom, two bedroom and three bedroom apartment in Cambridge increased 138, 123, 100 and 109 percent, respectively. That kind of price increase can only be described as profiteering, and I can guarantee you that it isn’t just elderly widows making all that cash. In fact, Harvard is making quite a bit. The Harvard Real Estate Services determines the price of its 2300 Harvard affiliate rental units based on the going rates of apartments in the Cambridge and Somerville area. While these apartments have not gone up as much as average apartments in Cambridge, there are also large amounts of property Harvard owns and rents for purely commercial pursuits. And of course it goes without saying that Harvard students are partly to blame for driving up the cost of housing. Few people have more money than Harvard students, or rather, the parents of Harvard students, and as long as grad students and those living off campus are willing to pay ridiculous rents, property owners will continue to raise the price as high as the market will bear.

But college students looking for a cheap place to live are not the real victims of rent hikes though. If you venture outside the confines of Harvard Square and its beautiful surrounding neighborhoods, you’ll realize that Cambridge is for the most part, a lower income city. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends that households spend no more than 25-30 percent of gross income on housing, but right now 78 percent of low-income Cambridge residents spend more than this income on rent, and 40 percent spend more than 75 percent of their income on housing.

But thankfully a group of Cambridge residents have gathered the necessary signatures to bring restoring rent control up for a vote next Tuesday, Nov. 4. It is a diverse group pushing for limits on real estate profiteering—from renters sick of seeing their own rents increase boundlessly to homeowners tired of watching their neighbors and friends having to move away, only to be replaced by outsiders willing to pay exorbitant prices.

And this time the powers that be in the Massachusetts real estate world will not be able to march out the token small-time property owner who might otherwise be unable to afford proper upkeep if rent control is reestablished. Owner occupied buildings of three or fewer residences would be completely exempt from rent control under the new law, and owners with six or fewer units could file for exemptions if they have trouble meeting maintenance costs. Therefore, only those people wealthy enough to own large properties will have to take a cut in their enormous profits. It doesn’t take an economist to realize what an absurdly large amount of money real estate moguls have made off of the housing boom and see that they are shaking in their boots at the thought of a pay cut, even to the point of bringing in lawyers who unsuccessfully tried to keep the measure off the ballot.

All Harvard students registered in Cambridge should be out next Tuesday to vote yes on Question 1. Already Cambridge has seen a steady decline in the number of families who reside here, even as the population of Cambridge has grown. People are being forced to move to more affordable towns with poorer school systems, less access to jobs and transportation and increased distance from friends and neighbors. Students drive up the cost of apartments and attend a school that could alleviate the current affordable housing crisis. My intention is not to assign blame, but to point out that we have a duty to do something to alleviate the problem we have helped create.

Joe Flood ’04 is an English concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.