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RENT CONTROL

More than a year later, Cantabridgians continue to search for solutions to cope with the effects of the statewide referendum which repealed it.

By Abby Y. Fung

Rent control--the affordable housing plan which provoked bitter debates and divided Cambridge for 25 years--is gone.

Rent control was repealed by a statewide referendum which fully took effect January 1. Municipal elections will no longer pivot around the issue.

The politicians, pundits and polemicists now have turned their attention towards arguing about what might be the far-reaching consequences of its repeal.

"It will press people to the edge of homelessness," says Michael H. Turk, chair of the Cambridge Tenants' Union (CTU), a pro-rent faction.

But Jon R. Maddox, the author of Question 9--the November 1994 state ballot initiative which repealed rent control--denounces the former policy as "welfare for the rich."

"The poor don't have enough savvy to take advantage of it," Maddox says.

'Living Like Felons'

Maddox says was forced to write Question 9 because the Cambridge City Council was out of control.

He says the council ordered Maddox to rent out his condominium for $300 per month, a figure he estimates was $400 below market value.

With the support of the city's Small Property Owners Association (SPOA), Maddox drafted Question 9 in response.

"People were living like felons," he says. "[They] changed their phone numbers, took their names off the doors...".

Maddox, a local attorney, talks with special pride of the 70,286 petition signatures which he collected throughout the state--a mere 34 signatures more than the legal requirement.

After a campaign where citizens on both sides spent millions of dollars, the state-wide ballot initiative passed by several thousand votes, although 55 percent of Cambridge voters opposed it.

Chapter 282

Question 9 took effect January 1. But the state legislature's passage of Chapter 282 soon afterward assured that rents for those deemed "needy" by the city's rent control board would rise gradually, until the program was fully eliminated this December.

To qualify as needy, one's annual income must be no more than $32,150 per year, a figure calculated using guidelines established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some 1500 families living in Cambridge's 14,415 rent-controlled units in Cambridge qualified for protected status. They will pay only 30 percent of their monthly income as rent.

Holding the Line

Kathy A. Speigelman, president of Harvard Planning and Real Estate (HPRE), sets rents for the 700 units owned by Harvard University.

"Last year, rent increased by 10 percent for regular tenants and 5 percent for those with protected status," Speigelman says.

She says that Harvard will continue to make "only moderate increases."

Cambridge City Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55 has criticized recent rent hikes by HPRE. But Turk says, "So far, [HPRE is doing] all right by me."

SPOA President Lenore M. Schloming '59, who is also a landlord, says she does not "have the heart to raise rents" on existing tenants.

Schloming adds, however, that she upgrades her apartment units and raises rents when older tenants move out.

But by comparison, a CTU study of 600 tenants throughout Cambridge, Boston and Brookline shows an average rent increase of 75.6 percent between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1, 1995.

Linda P. Cohen, office manager of Cambridge's Century 21-Avon says that the abolition of rent control has resulted in "a class of first-time buyers."

"Former tenants who do have the ability to purchase are realizing that it's cheaper to buy [in the long run]," she says.

Tenants Nervous

Tenants' associations overwhelmingly believe that the abolition of rent control will burden the poor and the elderly.

Property owners, however, claim that Cambridge will finally be following the free-market system used in virtually every other city in America.

"Even though a significant number of our members gained protected status, the effect has been devastating," Turk says.

"Some have been forced to move or to leave Cambridge altogether," he says. "It's one situation when you have the option to move; it's another when it is forced upon you."

Turk says the higher rates are "impossible for many low- and middle-class families to afford" and that some families have had to find second jobs to pay their rent.

JoAnne Preston, chair of the Agassiz Tenants' Association, says that there have been dire civic ramifications associated with rent control's repeal.

"Rent control is a way of trying to protect a very scarce commodity, to preserve communities, to allow people to continue to live in their homes," Preston says.

Current tenants will be replaced by students, visiting scholars and "transient yuppies" who have no interest in the larger Cambridge community, according to Preston.

Landlords Pleased

But Maddox and other property owners say that rent-control supporters exaggerate their claims about eviction rates, rent hikes and community debilitation.

"The tenants are not evicted," he says. "They're just subject to an increase in rent."

Even supporters of rent control concede that few Cantabrigians have had to move from their homes, according to Maddox.

Schloming says she is "overjoyed" by rent control's death because she felt the policy protected citizens who should not qualify for assistance.

"Under 10 percent of rent-control tenants are actually poor," she says.

Schloming says she also opposes rent control because it forces property owners to shoulder the burdens for lower-income residents.

"They'd better stop asking me to fund [tenants,]" she says. "I just don't think there are that many [poor] people.

And Maddox adds that landlords will be less likely to repair housing units that yield below-market rents.

"If you look at any economic textbook, you'll see that this is a very destructive practice," Maddox says. "If you have rent control, there is not enough money going back into the building."

Harvard's Housing

Residents of both ideologies are eyeing the 700 apartments in the city owned by HPRE.

Preston says that the corporation's plan to turn the units into housing for graduate students could exacerbate the already contentious rent-control dilemma.

Last October, HPRE presented a plan to the city council which would sell 100 houses, reserve 94 units for needy tenants and make 70 units available to the city for affordable housing purposes.

"As [the units] become vacant, we plan to rent them out to Harvard affiliates," Speigelman says. "I don't see that as necessarily bad."

Speigelman says HPRE is balancing between its responsibility to the community and its need to consider the best interests of Harvard.

"We're trying to be a positive influence on the city of Cambridge," she says. "I'm trying to find the line in between, [but] we can't do everything.

But Duehay renewed his earlier objections to HPRE's proposal and predicts that "in the next few years, those with moderate means will find it impossible to rent in Cambridge."

Conservative Councillor Sheila T. Russell says that she felt rent control had some merits. But she says it was abolished because tenants refused to negotiate any reasonable modifications to the proposal.

"The tenants wouldn't change and now it's gone," she says. "There were a lot of people abusing the system."

Duehay and Russell both say that the city officials have been devising measures to combat the harshest effects of Question 9.

Easing the Transition

Cambridge Community Development (CCD) spent several months of 1995 devising pilot programs for low-income households who are having trouble affording the higher rents.

The programs are run by the city and paid for with $2 million in taxpayer funds.

One proposal, the Cambridge Condo Buyers Initiative, provides up to $30,000 for low-income Cantabrigians seeking to purchase homes, according to CCD Housing Planner Roger E. Herzog.

Those who do not meet the city's income guidelines are given "technical assistance in the form of advice and information," Herzog says.

The department also funds the Affordable Housing Rehabilitation Loan Program, which extends up to $15,000 in low-interest loans to landlords who agree to set aside part of their buildings for low-income families.

The third city-funded plan is the Non-Profit Acquisition of Multi-Family Property. This program gives a maximum of $50,000 in loans to non-profit organizations which buy and rent property to lower-income families.

Applications for each of the grants are available by contacting CCD, Herzog says.

If landlords provide low-income housing to Cantabrigians for a minimum of 50 years, repayment of the loans will be waived, according to Herzog.

"The key is to get property into the hands of non-profit organizations and have them rent it to lower-income households," he says.

Herzog says he knows of no other programs of this kind in the Boston area.

"Very few cities in the country use their own revenue to fund their own homes," he says.

The pilot programs have been publicized with mass mailings, advertisements and public notices which have been distributed throughout the city.

A significant response has been generated thus far, according to Herzog.

And while the debate on rent control has taken on a new dimension, it show no signs of fading away.

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