Tenant Tyrant


HAVE YOU HEARD the news? Harvard is finally divesting.

No, the University is not purging its portfolio of all investments in companies doing business with South Africa. But it is selling off a number of small rent controlled properties it owns in Cambridge to senior and junior faculty members and making the community as mad as hell in the process.

Since the fall of 1983, Harvard has been quietly selling small wooden-framed houses to its teachers on a priority basis in order to offer faculty a chance to live closer to campus. By selling to owners who must occupy these homes, the University takes the property out from under the city's stringent rent control regulations and avoids paying double in property taxes.

All of this is done completely within the law, but the policy reeks of bad faith with the people of Cambridge. When these two and three-unit dwellings are taken off the rent control market, the tenant is no longer protected from a landlord, presumably a faculty member, who wishes to lack up the monthly rent at his own whim. Many low and moderate income Cantabrigians can't afford these inevitable rent increases. And since it takes months to find affordable housing in Cambridge, technicians, teachers and yes, even some of Harvard's own graduate students will be pushed right out of this community. Secondly, the University informs faculty about these sales two months before announcing them to the general public and will not give the right of first refusal to tenants currently occupying the houses.

The principal aim of the University's house sale is to make a tenure offer more enticing to a prospective faculty member. This is all part of Harvard's overall attempt to make attractive fringe benefits available to counteract the increasing number of tenure rejections it receives. However, small wood frame houses cannot be considered major incentives to incoming faculty. Most professors prefer to live in Watertown or Newton already and have no desire to move their families to Cambridge. If anything, the only incentive is to purchase these rundown structures, perform expensive reconstructions, and resell them a few years later for a fat profit.

And yet, from the 1968 Dunlop Committee to more recent reports on maintaining the quality of Harvard faculty, the University has repeatedly tried to convince the community that providing housing for faculty is "a costly and probably inefficient way of making faculty appointments desirable."

THERE ARE MANY OTHER ways to shape the future of Harvard's faculty and attract talented professors to Cambridge. We urge the University to invest its time-and efforts elsewhere: in securing endowed chairs, state-of-the-art laboratories and other resources to attract faculty rather than to infringe upon the community. Hiring a faculty real estate consuitant is also an excellent way of solving professors housing woes--a plan of action the University is already pursuing.

The consequences of Harvard's newest housing policy could be dire. In 1970, for example, City Councilor Saundra Graham marched on Harvard and disrupted Commencement ceremonies largely in protest against the University's real estate policies. Fifteen years later, it's a new twist on an old theme: Harvard's reprehensible real estate dealings with the community. Now the city is planning a whole host of schemes to retaliate against Harvard, not the least of which is a citywide referendum on next November's ballot asking people to comment on Harvard's real estate dealings. Either the University should immediately halt these sales or the city council should seize the opportunity to reform the rent control laws and twist Harvard into submission.