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With the state's law dying in committee, weaker local controls may well be on the way

By Henry Griggs

Since the beginning of the year, the question of keeping rent control legislation alive in Massachusetts has been a source of fierce debate. Opponents of the legislation have said that cities and towns wanting to control rents should be allowed to do so inside their own borders, but that the state should let its current local-option rent-control enabling act expire. Supporters of the legislation have tried to lobby lawmakers into retaining the state law that spells out the terms of rent control, arguing that bringing the question down to the level of municipalities will subject it further to the pressure of vested interests and the winds of local politics. Still other sides of the issue have emerged since January 1, and just about the only thing that is certain is that the question is complex.

An event at the city council meeting two weeks ago illustrates the complexity of the rent control debate, where the line between supporters and opponents is often blurred by strategic considerations. Councilor David Clem, a supporter of rent control at the state-wide level, proposed a home-rule petition for rent control in Cambridge that would replace the state-wide bill which he expected might expire. His fellow radical-liberal councilor Saundra Graham, normally a supporter of rent control, did not vote for Clem's plan. Although she repeated in vehement tones her support, in practice and in principle, for rent control, Graham departed from her position on this vote. Her reason was strategic; she did not want an approved home-rule plan for Cambridge to cloud the larger issue that faced rent-control supporters across the state, namely, a hoped-for extension of the state-wide act.

Just this once, Graham found herself on an unfamiliar side of the rent control debate. Four councilors, Liberals Barbara Ackermann, Francis H. Duehay '55, Clem, and "independent" Independent Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci, voted in favor of the petition. The four members of the council's regular Independent group, Daniel A. Clinton, Thomas W. Danehy, Leonard J. Russell, and Walter J. Sullivan, voted against it. Graham voted "present." And the petition, lacking only her vote for a majority, failed.

But only one week later, when the deadline for extending the state's bill loomed dangerously near, Graham reconsidered her tactics and voted for the petition. The council has since sent it to the legislature for consideration.

Since the state-wide legislation took effect five years ago, rent control has been one of the hottest issues in Cambridge. And with good reason. More than 60 per cent of households in the city come under the rent-control act. Fully a dozen tenant-and-general-interest groups claim rent control as a major, motivating issue the League of Women Voters, the Council of Elders, Citizens for Participation in Political Action, to mention a few, have all lent their support to the program--which controls some 22,000 units in Cambridge alone. Boston, which, like nearby Brookline, five years ago passed a home-rule rent law which differed from the state-wide legislation, has recently gone through the throes of re-evaluating its rent rules. Cambridge and Somerville have implemented the provisions of the state's law for five years, and the town of Lynn has scheduled a November referendum on whether it should follow suit.

But rent control has never been so much at the fore of public discussion as it is now. The reasons are simple. The state-wide enabling act that allowed rent control to come into being in the first place was due to expire at midnight, December 31, 1975. But intense lobbying by tenants and public officials during the last few days of the legislature's session was sufficient to get that body to extend the law for ninety days, until March 31. During the first round of the fight over rent control, two easily distinguished sides should have lined up on either side of one question: Do we want rent control to continue? The legislature's answer was a bureaucratic one: Yes, at least for now.

In the two-and-a-half months since that last-minute contest, the issue of rent control has grown larger and more confused as alternatives to the state's laws have sprung up from all sides. Some lawmakers tried to hammer out a new version of the bill to replace the old one. Cities like Cambridge--which is interested primarily in maintaining rent control within its boundaries and secondly in keeping the law at the state level--have come up with their own proposals for maintaining an intramural brand of rent control. Some tenant groups lined up with the city to push for local control; others, seeing what they think are dire effects of making rent control a piece-meal local affair, have turned to non-legislative action.

The confusion really started after the Massachusetts House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the three-year extension of the existing statute earlier this month. Although the House has now approved the idea of keeping rent control at the state level until 1979, the revived law must still be passed by the state Senate and then signed by Governor Michael S. Dukakis before it can take effect. The governor has expressed his support for rent control, and says he will sign any extension of it that comes to his desk.

Many observers have predicted the bill would gain a handy majority on the Senate floor, but so far its opponents have kept it from reaching a vote. The blame for the Senate's inability to move can be laid to several causes, but anybody's list will include the name of Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman James A. Kelly, Jr.

Like other leaders of other Ways and Means Committees in other legislative bodies, Kelly is a man with great power in his milieu. All legislation, from the lowliest procedural change to momentous acts that affect the lives of tens of thousands--acts like rent control extension--must be reviewed by Kelly's committee and discharged by it before the Senate can act. If attempts to get a bill out of the committee fail, then the Senate never votes on it, the governor never gets it on his desk, and the bill never becomes law. Worse yet, when a law nears the end of its legislative life, as rent control is doing now, bottling it up in committee is the same as putting it in a real bottle and tossing it out to sea. It's lost for good.

Sen. Michael LoPresti, Jr., the Democrat who represents East Boston and Cambridge, moved to discharge the bill March 16, but the 17 votes his motion got was nine short of the two-thirds required to pass it, and didn't even add up to a simple majority. After the vote, LoPresti despaired of keeping rent control alive in any from at the state level. "I'm afraid it's dead here now," he warned, adding that cities wanting rent control "will have to come through with home-rule petitions now." And although Chairman Kelly himself suggested that his opposition to extending the state-wide act might be mollified if compromises could be reached on some of its provisions, Senate President Kevin B. Harrington echoed the feelings of most rent control opponents in saying that the bill "will stay right where it is."

The expected demise of rent control at the state-wide level has divided rent control supporters in Cambridge. The nine-member city council, which now has a majority of five who have expressed support of continuing rent control as it is, began to devise the home-rule petition introduced by Clem. The move was spurred on by promises from both Harrington and Kelly to support home-rule plans from municipalities that want them. Harrington went so far as to say he will insure that the legislators act promptly to approve any city's request for rent control within its borders. With encouragement like that in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles to state-wide extension, the council last week approved Clem's plan 5-4.

The legal package that the council's legislative aide delivered to Beacon Hill has most of the wrappings of earlier Massachusetts rent-control legislation, but it contains several surprises for any lawmaker who examines it carefully. Although Clem used much of the language of the state-wide law to write his bill, the home-rule version that the council finally approved contains additions and revisions that extend the state law and stiffen some of its provisions. One change the council included was a rewording of the requirements for evicting a tenant. The Cambridge plan shifts the burden of proof of malfeasance onto the landlord's shoulders, and demands that only when the tenant has exhausted "all meritorious defences" can he be thrown out. Just as important is Cambridge's decision to change the date at which rents were fixed. Under the Cambridge petition, that date would be six months before the adoption of rent control, instead of the state's one month. The plan would freeze rents in Cambridge at their November, 1975 level.

The most controversial part of the proposed Cambridge plan is its inclusion of subsidized housing under rent control. Under the existing Massachusetts law, housing that is built or subsidized by the Federal Housing Authority of the Massachusetts Housing Finance Authority is specifically exempted from control. But arguments presented by tenant groups from subsidized housing in the city, and especially their tales of $250 monthly rents for "low-cost" one-bedroom apartments, convinced the council to include FHA and MHFA housing in their plan. Most observers and lobbyists predict that this part of the Cambridge petition will get the most resistance from the legislature.

But the wording of the Cambridge petition has already drawn fire from other elements of the community besides lawmakers. Members of the Cambridge Rent Control Task Force, a coalition of various tenant, elderly and general interest organizations were disappointed by the council's decision to include the state bill's "luxury decontrol" clause. Under this rule, the executive body of the rent control legislation, in this case the council itself, can exempt up to 25 per cent of units from rent control as long as the apartments go for rents that are above an arbitrary limit. The clause was originally intended to deny rent-control protection to affluent tenants, who, it is argued, can shift for themselves in their plush penthouses. But high-rent living, the Task Force members contend, is not the same thing as luxury living, especially in Cambridge. Students living together near their schools, people who are looking for extra security in one of the nation's most dangerous cities, all deserve protection from sudden and costly rent hikes and arbitrary evictions, they argue. Whether or not luxury decontrol is prejudicial and unfair, the council was willing to include it in order to further the petition's chances in the legislature.

For all the arguments over specific provisions of the Cambridge rent law, the strongest reaction to the Senate's failure to act on the state-wide bill has come from two groups who have raised the basic question of whether locally empowered and administered rent control can work at all. The two groups, the Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee (CTOC) and Citizens for Participation in Political Action claim that local rent laws are piece-meal and ineffective in the face of strong landlord opposition.

Both groups point to the example of Boston, where a vacancy decontrol amendment--designed to end rent control on an apartment as soon as the current tenant has left--was recently added to that city's six-year-old home-rule act. Almost every supporter of rent control insists that vacancy decontrol is "virtual decontrol." While landlords and realtors assert that vacancy decontrol doesn't hurt the long-term tenant--the "real" residents, as they like to put it--rent control supporters point to the fact that historically it is the poorest workers who move the most within their own city. So the people who can least afford to lose rent control are the ones who lose it first. As a result, CTOC claims, rents on apartments in certain neighborhoods--middle- and lower-income districts and some industrial areas--tend to rise before others, creating friction among people looking for apartments.

Finally, CTOC warns that under vacancy decontrol, landlords will be more likely to harrass tenants in order to get them to move. As soon as the unit is free, the landlord can legally up the rent without improving the apartment.

Whether all these dire effects are necessary in the scheme of things in Cambridge has yet to be seen. What convinces CTOC spokesman William Cunningham that home-rule rent control is no good is the simple fact that landlords and realtors' organizations support it. Cunningham claims landlords "couldn't have been happier," when Boston's locally administered rent law turned into a vacancy decontrol plan because it meant that rent control may well be crippled everywhere it is locally run. Rather than court the legislature any further, CTOC plans to turn its efforts to organizing tenants for militant action, including possible rent strikes and lockouts.

Cunningham may be right in his prediction that rent controls will be watered down throughout the state as a result of home-rule legislation. As the council meeting of two weeks ago illustrates, the fate of rent control may sooner or later hinge of the vote of one woman or man whose actions will profoundly affect the lives of many. If Graham had repeated her "present" vote at the council meeting which finally approved Clem's home-rule plan, the plan would have failed. And Cambridge would be left without an alternative to the expected death in committee of state-wide rent control. At the earlier meeting, Graham witheld her vote on a strategic matter. But after March 31, the same kind of vote on the same council could kill rent control for good.

The fate of rent control in Cambridge now depends on the City Council--which last week approved a control plan by a majority of only one.

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