The Cambridge Rent control Board last night found the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in violation of rent control ordinances on a plot of land known as the Simplex site, but it did not impose the penalty recommended by the examiner who reported on the case.
Before a crowd of vocal tenant activists, the board ruled that MIT committed the violations in eight housing units located on a 27-acre parcel of land designated to be the site of University Park, an office, industrial and housing complex that MIT is building in cooperation with a developer.
If MIT is allowed to carry out its plans, a 350-room luxury hotel will replace the houses in question. But the university may not tear down four rent-controlled apartments in the houses without permission from the Rent Control Board.
The houses stand across the street from the vacant lot where a group of homeless squatters set up a community in October they called Tent City.
During the month they lived on the lot, the squatters asked MIT for permission to renovate the houses and move into them. The university denied their request and later evicted them from the land, making several arrests.
According to testimony considered in last night's hearing, MIT evicted the tenants of the rent-controlled houses in 1979. Since then, it has gutted the buildings, removing heating units and other fixtures, according to a report made to the board by a case examiner.
The board voted 3-2 that by destroying the fixtures that made the apartments habitable, MIT had violated the Cambridge ordinance requiring that rent-controlled houses remain on the market.
"They have ruined this housing," said John Mason, the lawyer for the Simplex Steering Committee, a neighborhood group that has been fighting MIT's development plans for almost 15 years.
MIT is scheduled to petition the board for permission to demolish the vacant houses at a hearing scheduled for March 16. MIT's lawyer, Scott Lewis, asked the board to consider both the violations and the university's petition for permission to destroy the buildings last night. But the board decided to wait to consider the removal petition until its regularly scheduled meeting next month.
Lewis is currently representing the city of Cambridge in an unrelated lawsuit.
"There's no question that MIT knew that they were in violation of the full occupancy ordinance," said board member Ellen Semonoff.
Tenant activists said they had mixed feelings about the board's ruling.
"What they did was find that MIT violated the law, yet they refused to make explicit that it was flagrant," said tenant lobbyist Michael H. Turk. "Criminal sanctions should be applied to this white-collar crime," he said. "We're back to the battle of the houses. What still remains is restoring those houses, which is essential."
"It was very important that MIT be found in violation both of the removal ordinance and the full occupancy ordinance," said Bill Cavelinni, chairman of the Simplex Steering Committee. "I'm disappointed that it wasn't found a flagrant violation, because if it was flagrant it would justify a severe penalty."