Rent Control: The Continuing City Battle

EVER SINCE the Cambridge City Council adopted Rent Control last September City Manager John Corcoran and Interim Rent Control Administrator Philip M. Cronin have delayed implementation of the law. Corcoran has never appointed a full-time administrator, and he fired Joseph A. Spadafora, a young lawyer hired as Executive Director, after only one week on the job, Cronin began his administration by temporarily adjusting all rents to the current level, a move of questionable legal status, and now that the rollback provision has finally been implemented, he has come up with a formula to determine rent adjustments that will mean rent raises throughout the city.

Justification for such delaying tactics is going to be harder to find in the future, since the Massachusetts Supreme Court has finally declared the law constitutional. Now there is no excuse for Corcoran not to appoint a full-time permanent administrator; however, he does not seem to be very near doing so. Of the three candidates originally recommended to him for consideration by the "Blue Ribbon" committee of citizens appointed to the Council to screen applicants, two have already been eliminated. One has accepted another job and the other was Spadafora. Corcoran says he has talked several time; with Eugene Underwood-an administrator for New York City rent control and the committee's first choice-but that there are still other people under consideration. Corcoran has not been open about how he is going to make this important appointment, and at this point it may be hard for him to get a competent person to take the job. As Spadafora put it, "After what I went through with them I don't see why anyone would touch that job with a ten-foot pole." But Corcoran had better find someone who will, and soon.

Cronin is not anxious to remain as In?irem Rent Control Administrator. The post is a full-time job and he already has a private law practice and the important part-time job of giving all the legal opinions for the city as City Solicitor. But these other commitments cannot justify his handling of the administration to date. His recent definition of the "fair net income" clause in the rent control law is one example of his consistently conservative approach to rent control.

Although he says his definition is a temporary one, it was made without conducting a public hearing as he earlier promised. By defining fair net income as between 10 and 15 per cent of the current market value of a property, Cronin has opened the door for landlords to justify rent increases. Although the mathematics of determining fair net income are quite complex, the point can be understood by comparing the Cambridge standard to standards in other cities.

In New York, for example, the standard gives a landlord 81/2 per cent on fair market value and allows a two per, cent deduction for depreciation as an expense. This is lower than even the lowest limit of the Cronin standard.

The effect this standard would have on Harvard properties is a case in point. Herbert Alfredson, a property manager with Hunneman Realty Company who takes charge of administrating Harvard-owned apartments, said this week, "The return Harvard would need on its properties is much less than 10 to 15 per cent. I would expect that a five per cent increase would be a reasonable adjustment to apply for on the basis of the nineteen dollar property tax increase." Hunneman manages approximately 2000 units of housing for Harvard. Although Alfredson has not yet applied for any adjustments on Harvard properties that come under rent control, he expects that he may do so for individual properties. However, the increases he would apply for would not be on the 10 to 15 per cent basis: they would be around five per cent. Clearly Cronin's standard is much too high.

Although rent control has not yet served to bring any large measure of rent relief to tenants it has at leastfunctioned to bring out the effects of different political techniques in the city. The administration of the law by Corcoran and Cronin is another example of one of the main techniques of city government: delay.

Landlord opposition to the law centered on the constitutionality suit up until Monday, and occasional statements at City Council meetings by Carl F. Barron, chairman of the Cambridge Property Owners' Association. However, as tenant politicking has grown more confrontation-oriented, spearheaded by the Cambridge Tenants' Organizing Committee, so has the tone of landlord lobbying. Thursday night William H. Walsh, speaking for the newly formed Cambridge Taxpayers' Association, threatened a taxpayer strike unless Cronin's guidelines are adhered to. Although the theories are completely opposed, the landlord threat begins to sound like tenant action earlier this year in which tenants spontaneously rolled back their rents despite Cronin's order to the contrary.

The effects will probably be quite different, however. Tenants risked eviction proceedings in their action Y something the landlord will not face.

It is also becoming increasingly clear as to which tenants the city is willing to listen to and which they are not. The Cambridge Tenants' Organizing Committee has organized 500 tenants throughout the city, yet at each successive Council meeting they are given less time to speak. After Monday's meeting. Mayor Alfred Vellucci said in obvious anger, "Who do these guys think they are that they think they can talk to me that way? They're not going to come in here and expect to be able to yell at me." And indeed they were unable to the next time. At Thursday's open meeting the CTOC was allotted ten minutes of time and were strictly cut off at the end of that period.

Vellucci is more willing, however, to listen to clean-cut tenant attorney Philip Shaw. At Monday's meeting Vellucci designated Shaw as his official spokesman to go and question Cronin about the fair net income standard. Although Cronin did not speak with him. Shaw was able to question him for an hour and a half at Thursday night's open meeting. Shaw managed to function as a spokesman for tenant interests while still being able to maintain the support of Vellucci and the City Councillors. He has done his research well, he appears before the Council in a suit and tie, and he can talk legal language as adeptly as Philip Cronin.

The lesson to be learned from this is one we know too well already. Bureaucracy and confrontation polities don't mix. The City is essentially Nixon-style political oppression on a smaller scale, and no one knows if rent control will ever bring relief to tenants or simply continue as a political ball to bat around.