Two years ago, Harvard's sales of small, rent-controlled houses to faculty members were the talk of the town.
In fact, the policy of property divestment drew such vociferous criticism from Cambridge residents that local politicians turned the issue into a referendum question on the 1985 municipal ballot. And 50 percent of the city's electorate told Harvard to stop.
But in this election year, the anti-Harvard rhetoric directed at Harvard Real Estate (HRE), Inc., is minimal at best, despite the fact that the property sales continue at a steady pace. Since the 1985 election for instance, HRE has sold another seven small buildings, bringing the total number put on the auction block under the four-year old program to 17.
Since the fall of 1983, HRE--the internal company which manages Harvard's properties--has been quietly divesting its small building stock in Cambridge with the intention of selling off about 30 buildings "not necessary to longterm needs." Some of the buildings are rent-controlled, some are not.
When a vacancy occurs in a small, wooden house owned by the University, for instance, HRE has offered Harvard faculty members first crack at purchasing the property. If no professor makes a bid after four weeks of notification, the house is offered to tenants and then placed on the open market. So far, of the 17 sold, no more than 50 percent have gone to faculty members--and some of those have been resold already.
Tenant activists charge that because of loopholes in the city's rent control laws, Harvard's sales of these small properties leads to high rentals or conversions to non-controlled units after they are sold.
"These sales are to the detriment of the community because they deplete the stock of reasonably affordable housing," says Michael H. Turk, an outspoken proponent of Cambridge's system of rent control.
Part of the controversy two years ago arose from the fact that Harvard was indirectly dumping low-income tenants out onto the street. "Harvard's only once removed. They sell the property and then the tenants are forced out...and yet Harvard feels they don't have to be held responsible for it," Turk argues.
But HRE President Sally H. Zeckhauser says that Harvard does accept responsibility for tenants in special cases. Recently, she says, HRE helped one family relocate from a building slated for sale into another University-owned apartment because one member of the family was disabled. "It's a real exception rather than the rule," Zeckhauser says about HRE's attempts to help a few tenants relocate.
And what do these sales mean for the city's system of rent control? According to estimates by some observers, anywhere from 37 to 51 units of low-income housing have been removed from Cambridge's stock of rent-controlled apartments under this program.
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