Tenants, Owners Blast Rent Control Reforms

When dozens of property owners marched in front of City Hall Monday night carrying signs which read "Fairness Now" and "Rent Control: Taxation Without Representation," no one at the council meeting inside was surprised.

Picketing at City Hall before council meetings has become a common sight this month, with owners and tenants showing up in full force to protest the package of rent control reform proposals that the council is in the process of considering.

The meetings themselves have played to packed houses for the past four sessions, with speeches and arguments from citizens and councillors lasting past midnight.

Now the council has passed all but two of the 16 orders in the package. But although tenants and owners usually find themselves on opposite sides of anything to do with rent control, both groups are pessimistic about the changes--if any--the reforms will bring to the system.

"Basically, there's been relatively little content in the orders," says Michael H. Turk, chair of the Cambridge Tenants' Union (CTU). "It isn't that there aren't some positive elements, but those need a lot of work."

Small Property Owners Association(SPOA) Co-Chair Denise A. Jillson calls the reform package "much to-do about nothing."

"Frankly, many of [the orders] are not workable, and certainly none of them will benefit us," Jillson says. "It's an election year, and [the councillors] want to look good."

The council's subcommittee on rent control unveiled the 16 proposals at the beginning of last month as part of its 320-page final report, the result of more than nine months of meetings and hearings. The package was designed to remedy the maladies which currently plague Cambridge's 20-year-old rent control system.

At the council's April 10 meeting--the first time the city's governing body heard public testimony about the reform package--Kenneth E. Reeves '72, the chair of the council's rent control subcommittee, called the proposals a "fair and firm" attempt "to focus on rent control as part of a much broader housing policy for the city of Cambridge."

Most of the citizens who have packed the sullivan Chambers for council meetings this month, however, haven't seen it that way.

By far the most controversial order of the batch is the proposal paying the way for a so-called "tenant tax," which the council passed 8 to 1 last week after hours of impassioned discussion.

The order authorizes city officials to begin work on an administrative plan to raise money for an Affordable Housing Preservation Fund, which would finance the upkeep of rent-controlled housing. The plan would require eligible tenants to contribute between 2 and 5 percent of their incomes to the fund. Low-income tenants, the disabled and the elderly would be able to apply for exemptions from the surcharge.

According to Turk, the main problem with the tenant surcharge is that it will be a move in the direction of government subsidies for owners. Currently, owners of rent-controlled properties charge rent based on upkeep costs.

The affordable housing surcharge will only harm tenants, Turk says. He adds, it is the only significant order in the package. "What major piece of action there is, namely the tenant tax, is negative," he says.

In addition to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund proposal, the council has now agreed to the following measures:

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