Heading to Court

The latest attack on Cambridge's rent control regulations has come from an organization of small property owners. They want to challenge the constitutionality of the system in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cambridge's 22-year-old, ever-controversial rent control system is under attack again.

This time, a relatively new player in the city's rent control politics, the Small Property Owners Association (SPOA), is threatening to scrap the system through the courts, vowing to take the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

The lawsuit is the latest--and possibly the broadest--challenge in the seemingly endless series of political and legal attacks on Cambridge's system, and reflects a tide of decontrol slowly sweeping rent regulating communities across the state and nation.

The suit also reflects the growing political and financial clout small landlords hold in the city and thier hope that the current U.S. Supreme Court will look more favorably upon their cause than past Supreme Courts.


Of course, rent control advocates call the suit a "grab bag" of landlord gripes, saying that the fight has been fought before, and that the landlords lost.

An Issue of Rights

On Jan. 3, John H. Natale, the 12-year owner of a four-unit, rent-controlled Cambridge townhouse, walked into Middlesex Superior Court and dropped off the lawsuit--the result of more than a year of planning and fundraising--against Cambridge and its rent control system. The plaintiffs in the case--SPOA and several individual landlords--are charging the system with nine counts of violating landlords' property rights.

"You want to know what rent control is?" Natale asks. "It's blatant theft masquerading as benevolent humanitarianism."

"It's stealing from me. It's affecting my standard of living, what kind of car I drive, whether my daughter can get piano lessons. Rent control is evil. I want to abolish it. I want to kill it."

The suit charges that there is no longer any public need for rent regulation and that the system--considered one of the most restrictive in the country--unfairly takes control of landlords' property by not allowing them to leave their buildings vacant or destroy or convert them into condominiums. The suit charges that the city does not compensate landlords for their loss of rights, in effect forcing them to pay for much of the city's affordable housing program.

The suit asks the court to declare the system as it stands unconstitutional, to make major changes to it to make high rent increases easier to obtain, to allow landlords to destroy or convert their rent-controlled buildings, and to order Cambridge to repay landlords the rents they lost unfairly, their court costs plus all interest.

"I think that this is probably the most comprehensive attack on the system," says Denise Jillson, co-chair of SPOA and the owner of a four-unit rent-controlled building.

One Attack Among Many

But ever since Cambridge--following a nationwide movement towards anti-inflation rent regulations--enacted rent control in 1970, the system has been attacked incessantly through the political and legal process.

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