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City Is One Step Closer To Tighter Rent Control

Petition C 1/2 Now Headed to the State Senate

By Erik M. Weitzman

Cambridge is one step closer to obtaining legal authority to tighten up rent control regulations, thanks to a measure passed by a state legislative commitee last week.

Now on its way to the State Senate for review, the petition known as "C 1/2" will give the city power to ban owners of multi-unit rent-controlled buildings from selling off one unit at a time--thus preventing the conversion of rent-controlled apartments to condominiums.

C 1/2 is a "home-rule petition," a measure which is applied for by one town or city--in this case, Cambridge--which gives the local government more power without changing overall state regulations.

In an apparent attempt to mollify Cambridge small property owners--who oppose C 1/2--the legislature's joint local affairs committee added two controversial amendments to the petition before forwarding the bill to the Senate.

The first exempts owners of rent-controlled buildings with less than six units, allowing them to sell apartments individually to investors. The other amendment requires that Cambridge report back to the state legislature by July, 1991 on its progress in addressing complaints about the rent-control system made by property owners.

But neither supporters nor opponents of C 1/2 had much good to say about the two amendments. Rent control opponents said that the changes did not alleviate what they see as major problems with C 1/2. And rent control advocates said the amendments favoring land lords could pose a potential threat to rent control.

"The bill should never have been amended and should not be amended any more," said Sen. Michael J. Barrett '70 (D-Cambridge), local affairs committee chair and a strong advocate for C 1/2.

Barrett said the second amendment is especially dangerous because it allows the state to interfere in what should be a local issue.

"I think the opponents have a long-term strategy here--to narrow the bounds of what is permissible under rent control," said Barrett. "I'm very concerned about what they've got in store next."

And rent control critics said they saw the amendments as little more than a symbolic effort by the committee to appease them.

"It was a nice try by certain legislators who are sympathetic to us, but they missed their mark," said Small Property Owners Association (SPOA) Co-Chair John F. Natale.

Natale said he would have preferred an amendment exempting all owner-occupants of buildings from the ban on selling individual units.

"I don't think [the amendments] really help anbody," said Councillor William H. Walsh. "I think it was a cowardly way out by the legislature."

Walsh said the city is losing $8.8 million in revenues because of rent control, and added that people are taking advantage of the system.

"Help the poor, help families, help the homeless, help the aged, help those who need it--but don't protect the wealthy," said Walsh. "Why should a guy making $50,000 a year be in a rent-controlled apartment--that's stupid."

Jury Is Out

Cambridge Vice-Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72, a rent control supporter, said the city council is under no obligation to ratify C 1/2 if it finds the terms attached by the state unsatisfactory--though he would not comment on whether or not he now intends to oppose the petition.

"I think the jury is still out," said Reeves. "I won't be satisfied until it is passed in a form that I think could be helpful."

Other local C 1/2 supporters said they were displeased with the amendments, but added that they can live with the changes if they help gain swift passage of the petition.

"What we're trying to do is protect affordable housing," said Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55. "I think the amendments are unfortunate but basically acceptable to get the bill through."

C 1/2 was first passed in 1981 as an amendment to the city's 1979 removal law which prohibited the conversion of rent control apartments to condominiums.

Last November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judiciary Court struck down C 1/2 arguing that it gave the city powers which were not implied in their initial home-rule petition 20 years ago.

On December 18th, to get legal power to reinstate C 1/2, the city council passed a home rule petition which eventually failed. Barrett said he was unable to get signatures from all the legislators representing Cambridge in support of the petition before the legislative term came to a close.

But the city council passed another home-rule petition on January 29th, and Barrett said he has marshalled the requisite local backing.

"I feel I've got the support of the entire Cambridge delegation," said Barrett. "I hope to move it quickly."

"I could see it done in a week to two weeks," said Rep. Peter A. Velucci (D-Cambridge). Velucci, who supports C 1/2, said work on the petition will be sped up by going to the Senate first. "[The local affairs committee] figured it might get bogged down over here [in the House] because our priority now is taxes," Velucci said.

Rep. Alvin Thompson (D-Cambridge) said he was a bit more cautious in terms estimating a date for getting C 1/2 passed, saying that with a holiday weekend coming up, he didn't expect to see action this month. "By the middle of May, it should be back in Cambridge," Thompson said.

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