Monday, October 13, 2003


Cambridge isn’t going to be getting rent control anytime soon. Whether it’s needed is a little less certain.

The city, like the rest of Massachusetts, has been without rent control since 1994, but activists have put it on the Nov. 4 ballot as a home-rule petition, which means that even if enough voters in the city approve it, rent control must still be approved by the Legislature and Republican Gov. Mitt Romney. So the argument is probably pointless, as the chances of this happening are, well, extremely slim. Slimmer than a Slim Jim. About like a single strand of hair.

On the one hand, there’s census data showing that one in eight Cambridge homes are worth at least $1 million, making it the nation’s highest concentration of such homes, and rent generally tracks that. The fact is, people want to live in Cambridge, and that raises the cost of housing.

“I knew we had high housing costs,” Mayor Michael A. Sullivan told The Boston Globe in May, reacting to the million-dollar-home findings. “I never stopped to think of us in comparison to other communities. I just knew it was high, and higher than the means of most families.”

A city survey said that in April, average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,400, and average rent for a two-bedroom was $1,725, which, yes, may seem high. But that’s $710.52 per person. And these average rates in 1994 dollars are actually $1,130.07 for a one-bedroom apartment or $1,392.40 for a two-bedroom, meaning two people sharing an apartment would pay $696.20. That’s not that bad.

But the economy sucks, and, while people took advantage of the accompanying low interest rates to buy homes, even $1 million homes, the rental market suffered and is still suffering. Real estate agents are giving up their fees and security deposits and lowering rents just to get people in. In the summer of 2001, a one-bedroom apartment could easily have gone for $1,800 (which, in 1994 dollars, would be $1,506.27). When the economy improves, of course, those figures will be back.

But ... there is also a significant amount of building going on, with an incredible 4,320 housing units planned among Kendall Square, the “Maple Leaf” project of East Cambridge and the North Point tract by Lechmere. As apartments come on the market -- beautiful, shiny new apartments -- they should dampen rising rent costs.

But ... that doesn’t mean costs won’t still be high. The developers must set aside in their projects “affordable housing,” which has oddly come to mean “where poor people live,” and that’s not very helpful for the middle class, whether it take the form of families, professionals or students. If the Cambridge housing being built follows the trend in Boston, developers will pitch the costs to the high end to ensure glowing property values and recoup their investment. Because people want to live in Cambridge, the units are likely to fill up, even at a high price.

But ... the rent control proposal on the ballot, the one that won’t get enacted anyway, may not be the best possible proposal, and opposition is fierce and, including the arguments above, may have some good points. (It’s hard to escape the feeling that, yes, something must be done about high rental costs, but, no, this proposal isn’t that something.)

But ... the opponents can be their own worst enemy.

Lenore Monello Schloming, president of the Small Property Owners Association and, coincidentally, owner of 22 rental units in the city (if that qualifies for “small”), wrote against the rent control proposal in an April edition of the Cambridge Chronicle, summoning a great deal of outrage, some good points and a few specious arguments. For instance, she asks the goal of rent control, wondering if it’s “To stop migration out of Cambridge? To help the poor? These are false arguments,” and answers by citing census figures showing Cambridge growth and noting that the city “already has the second-highest percentage of subsidized housing for poor families. We have done plenty for the poor.” (Second-highest among what, she doesn’t say. It could be among U.S. cities, Massachusetts cities or possibly cities starting with “C” that are roughly the shape of a bow tie.)

By asking and answering her own questions, she gets to shape the debate, but growth in Cambridge doesn’t mean there isn’t migration out of Cambridge, just that more people are coming in than are leaving. The point of rent control is that it helps people stay. As to the other point, Schloming is correct in saying Cambridge is high in government-subsidized housing -- 17 percent, according to state Sen. Jarrett Barrios. But he admitted in May what the class-minded Schloming doesn’t in April: “The reality of Cambridge is that the middle class is disappearing.”

But what’s really damaging to Schloming and, by extension, the rent-control opponents she represents, is when her arguments slip into a grotesquely fascinating screed about what she feels really lies behind rent control:

“The truth is their goal is not to help poor people, but to drive private owners out of business. By keeping rents too low to maintain buildings and correct illegal code violations, tenants don’t have to pay all or part of their rent. As their rents get choked, as their buildings fall apart, owners ultimately have no choice but to either abandon their buildings or -- the true goal of rent control advocates -- sell their buildings cheap to government agencies to own and operate. The true goal of rent control is to end privately owned property.”

Take that! all you people who thought you just wanted to save a few bucks.

Regardless of Schloming’s borderline-paranoid ranting, the rent control proposal -- which actually says that “When controlled units are offered for sale ... tenants of those buildings would have the right to buy the building before other bidders” -- has little chance of success.

The effort gathered more signatures than it needed to get on the ballot, though, and the comments of the mayor and Barrios reflect a reasonable concern for the city, on the record. That means that when the proposal goes down, its proponents will be back, writing a more widely acceptable version and waiting for a more sympathetic state government.

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