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Senator's Apartment Draws Campaign Ire

Six-Term Incumbent From Barre Lives in Rent-Controlled Housing

By Julian E. Barnes

State Sen. Robert D. Wetmore's home district is an hour-and-a-half drive from his Boston offices--far enough away to make commuting something of a hassle.

But the solution that the six-term Democrat has relied on for the past 13 years is raising some eyebrows in his hometown of Barre, and causing Cambridge politicos to choose sides once more in one of the city's perennial battles.

Wetmore acknowledged last week that he lives primarily in a rent-controlled apartment in Cambridge, a $451-a-month godsend in a town where market rents on similar apartments can range from $750 to $1400.

In addition, the Democratic incumbent collects $22.50 a day in "travel expenses" to go from Cambridge to Barre--a fact that his opponent in the November election is planning to exploit for all it is worth.

"It's the overall abuse of authority," said Republican challenger John LaPointe. "Here is one person who could well afford to pay the full rent and who doesn't commute from Barre to Cambridge but still collects the travel money."

Henry Smith, a legislative payroll director for the Office of the Treasurer, says that while the $22.50 Wetmore earns is technically earmarked for travel expenses, it is supposed to cover any cost of living expense incurred by state legislators. Such expenses can include travel, food, fuel and rent, Smith said.

But while LaPointe said that contributions to his campaign have increased dramatically since the story of Wetmore's apartment broke on WCVB-TV, not everyone in Cambridge has been outraged by the news.

According to Michael H. Turk, chair of the Cambridge Tenants Union, Wetmore's Cambridge residence is the only remaining obstacle keeping the apartment from being taken out of the rent control system.

According to Turk and documents filed at the Registry of Deeds, Wetmore's apartment is owned by James N. Kaspar of Newton Circle, who bought the apartment in 1981 as a condominium from Robert M. Harlow.

The original deed for the apartment building was filed in June 1977, before the city enacted laws which made it illegal for landlords to move into rent-controlled apartments and remove them from the system.

As a result, he said, Wetmore's apartment is now the only apartment in the building which remains under rent control, and the senator's continued occupancy is the only thing keeping it that way.

"If Wetmore leaves it will convert to a condominium," Turk said. "Wetmore is keeping that unit from coming out of the rent control system."

Barbara B. Anthony, chair of the Rent Control Board said that the board had not examined the building in which Wetmore resides, and was unsure what would happen if Wetmore left his apartment.

Rent control opponents this week said that Turk's charges are irrelevant, and that Wetmore's case illustrates a problems that is all too common in the rent control system.

"I'm not surprised if there are a thousand guys and women like Senator Wetmore. It's crazy," said John R. Natale, chair of the Small Property Owners Association. "It isn't just Senator Wetmore. It is dozens of people."

Councillor William H. Walsh, who along with Harlow was one of the original trustees of the building that houses the apartment, said he agrees with Natale.

"The apartments should be for Cambridge residents of low and moderate income," said Walsh. "Senator Wetmore is taking advantage of Cambridge taxpayers... We should send the bill to the town of Barre or to the State House."

"I think out of respect he should have declined the apartment," Walsh added. "He also sits on the local affairs committee so he is familiar with the law and still he takes advantage."

While the city cannot legally restrict access to rent-controlled housing, Anthony said that landlords should make a good-faith effort to rent to people who cannot afford to pay market rents.

"In general landlords who offer someone of higher income a rent-controlled apartment should ask themselves if it is something they should do," Anthony said. "The purpose of rent control is to provide affordable housing ...If a higher-income person rents a controlled apartment they ought to examine their own position."

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