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Lid on the Pressure Cooker

By William E. Mckibben

"With city regulation, we can slow down the rate of change to condominiums. But I think that ultimately what we are talking about is the rate of change."--David Vickery, director of community development

The city's housing crisis began in the mid-'60s, when rents began to escalate so high residents could not pay. As a result, the city government reluctantly passed rent controls. "There were barefoot kids standing on my desk in the council chamber," former Mayor Thomas W. Danehy recalls. "They were smoking cigarettes with substances other than tobacco," he adds.

Rent control worked for a while to maintain the city's diversity and prevent the eviction of elderly and low-income tenants. But five years ago, property-owners discovered a new weapon: the condominium. Instead of raising rents, landlords abolished them all together, and fixed their apartments up for sale on the open market. In five years, 2000 rental units disappeared, and the same alarmed cries of gentrification arose. Again the city acted, this time passing an ordinance to limit severely the rate at which apartments could be converted.

But the council couldn't legislate away the lure of Cambridge. The universities, the neighborhoods, the ethnic mix, the culture, are all factors in a spiral that may one day prove their own downfall. A recent study by students at the Graduate School of Design, who examined every apartment building in the city, concluded that 45 per cent of the remaining rental housing stock would be converted to condominums this decade unless the government intervened. Fifty-eight per cent of those living in the apartments could not buy the units, mostly for lack of capital. And half that number would be low-income and elderly. "In 1976, I said Harvard St. would be all condos in ten years. Frankly, it's going to happen much quicker than that," Vickery says.

Condominium conversion, when it occurs, seems guaranteed to force an exodus of low- and moderate-income tenants and elderly residents, probably along with many "transients"--students for the most part--who are the butt of numerous attacks from city developers. The study shows they will likely be replaced by higher income owners, for the most part young professionals (attracted by the city's budding high technology industries). They will be single, or, if married, have few children. "That is the definition of gentrification," Councilor David Sullivan--who won his seat with heavy tenant backing--says.

Some see the conversions as a potentially beneficial trend. Billy Walsh, a local lawyer specializing in property transactions, says it "is the right of every American to buy a condominium." Vickery, while less ebullient, insists home ownership has its advantages. "We have a high percentage of transients now," he says. "I guarantee you that once they own their homes, people become more active, more concerned about neighborhood politics."

Still, the thought of every home with hanging plants, every living room with varnished wood floors and Design Research hangings has locals worried. "The city could become more uniform, more homogeneous," Mayor Francis H. Duehay '55 says, adding, "In some ways it would be easier to govern, but it will certainly be much less interesting." Meanwhile, as tenants are evicted throughout the city, "there could be tremendous individual human suffering," Sullivan adds. "Twenty-five per cent of the city's apartment dwellers could be evicted in the next decade--suffering on that magnitude could make the problems before rent control took effect look tame by comparison."

Those long-range and short-term dilemmas fuel efforts to keep the status quo. "My vision is essentially conservative," Sullivan, perhaps the most liberal councilor, says. "I would really like to see Cambridge continue as a home for moderate-and low-income families. And I would like to see their breadwinners be able to find jobs appropriate to the level of their education and skill in and around the city." So far, rent control and the condo conversion ordinance are the main bulwarks in the battle against gentrification. But they may not be permanent solutions--landlords soon discovered the condo loophole in the rent control law, and appear to be figuring out ways around the condo ordinance only six months after its passage.

Many city landlords are disgruntled with the laws. Inept administration and stickling adherence to regulation foul the rent control process, stifling efforts to win needed increases. Furthermore, current rent laws make it hard for landlords to do much about tenants who damage their quarters.

The biggest challenge to rent control and condo limits may come in the courts. Rent control without the condo ordinance would probably do as much harm as good, tempting landlords to convert their units in search of peace and, presumably, more money. The first court fight on the ordinance began within months of the law's passage. It reached court for the first time last week. Both sides vow to keep fighting no matter what the outcome at the first judicial level. "I have felt for a long time that legislation would probably not survive the decade. What we are trying to do is soften the blow," Duehay says. "We can slow the pace of that technological change, but the direction of that change is inevitable," he adds.

"I have more confidence in the ability of government to shape the future," Sullivan counters, but he too says "to a certain extent what we are doing is putting a lid on a pressure cooker. Occasionally, though the lid can be kept on, depending on how much pressure gets turned up under the pot." Should the ordinances and the controls fail, there is another line of resistance, though. "What we're doing is buying time to get our act together." Vickery explains. "right now, our efforts are fragmented." If the city's housing authority, redevelopment office and city planners work together, Vickery says, federal money could provide enough of a boost to keep a diverse population in the city. "We have to start using more subsidies, we have to start financing housing, using whatever leverage we can get," he contends. Federal loans come at prices as low as 3 per cent for those below the poverty line.

"What worries me more than anything is not that we won't have a range of incomes," Vickery says. "We will have a lot of subsidized units, and hence a lot of low-income people. But there is a very definite chance that we may not have the middle income, the people who are not eligible for subsidies, but who in no way can afford the rising costs of homes." Since working-class families comprise whole sections of Cambridge--notably North and East Cambridge--that would be a dramatic change, one felt especially in the city's schools and in City Hall.

The consensus is that Cambridge is changing. After a period of relative stability dating back to World War II, rising property values are affecting the economics of the city, and that in turn may mean the slow strangulation of neighborhood businesses like the Portuguese fish stores on Cambridge St. or the Italian bakeries near Vellucci's Insurance Agency. The change will be gradual, for few want to see total change, and many, like Sullivan, are happy with Cambridge the way it is now. But the courts and the state legislature may rip down the paper walls the council erects around the city's borders. Even if they don't, loopholes in council legislation will eventually be found. Despite sophisticated defenses, "we are becoming a city of wealthier people," Duehay says

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