25 years ago tenants organized, formed coalitions, took to the streets, and won rent control in Massachusetts.
But, after two and half decades of constant battles against powerful and wealthy opponents, the tenants lost the war to save rent control.
How did it happen?
In late December 1971, tenants in Cambridge, Massachusetts, demonstrated in freezing sleet on City Hall steps to demand rent control. They succeeded, and rent control became the centerpiece of the city’s affordable housing policy. In November 1994, Cambridge landlords accomplished what hundreds of lawsuits, years of lobbying, and nearly twenty-five years of lost bi-annual local elections had failed to accomplish – they abolished rent control. Under the guise of democracy – the state-wide ballot process – they achieved the undemocratic result of dumping the policy long endorsed by the majority of those affected by it.
Beginnings in Organizing
Cambridge, like many other cities in the 1960s, saw rising rents displace long-term lower income residents. Pressures from university expansion, urban “renewal” land clearance, and manufacturing job loss eroded Cambridge’s traditional industrial base and generated a severe housing crisis. Radicals, both those from the student movement and those from the “grassroots,” began organizing. They identified rent control as a way to increase stability and counter the “master plan” to transform working class Cambridge into “the brain center of the military-industrial complex.” In 1969, a referendum campaign began for a local rent control law, and although the effort failed because city officials ruled it unlawful, rent control was on the agenda.
By 1970, statewide tenant power passed a law authorizing cities and towns with populations over 50,000 to enact rent control. Boston, Lynn, Somerville, and Brookline, in addition to Cambridge, quickly adopted it. Lynn repealed it in 1974, as did Somerville in 1979. Boston approved vacancy decontrol in 1974, and Brookline decontrolled most of its units in 1991. Only Cambridge retained a strong system.
Throughout the 1970s, Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee (CTOC), which grew out of the 1969 referendum campaign and several successful eviction blockings, ensured that rent control worked in Cambridge. For nearly a decade, CTOC was a model class-conscious local organization. Militantly self-reliant, CTOC raised revenue from members’ contributions, from tenants who participated in its activities, and from other independent sources. The organization published a tabloid-style monthly newspaper and numerous informational guides. A tenant union committee organized tenants. A legal committee provided legal support. CTOC led rallies to protest city-wide rent increases approved by the rent board and held at least one semi-successful, city-wide rent strike.
In 1975 the state-wide enabling law was due to expire. Responding to heavy real estate industry lobbying, the legislature refused to extend it. But CTOC led the Cambridge fight to enact a home-rule version that was passed by the City Council and approved by the State Legislature and then-Governor Michael Dukakis.
By the late 1970s, however, CTOC began to unravel. Internal issues, as well as the changing political climate, contributed to the organization’s formal dissolution in 1978. When CTOC disbanded, it left a strong rent control system and history of tenant advocacy and activism.
Loss of Units Brings Stricter Regulation
During the 1970s, landlords sought ways to remove units from control. Since owner-occupied condominium units were not rent-controlled, widespread condo conversion began in older buildings. Masterminded by Cambridge anti-rent control attorney William Walsh, this strategy resulted in the removal of thousands of units from the rental market.
In response, tenants demanded that removals be restricted and elected David Sullivan, an activist tenant lawyer, to the City Council in 1978. By the summer of 1979, Sullivan and other pro-rent control councilors passed the Removal Permit Ordinance, which strictly regulated removals of controlled units by requiring proof that a removal would not aggravate the housing shortage and would benefit “the persons sought to be protected” by the rent control statute.
By the early 1980s, although the mass movement had faded to a few dedicated individuals called the Cambridge Tenants Union (CTU), the institutional structure that years of tenant activity had produced protected thousands of people. Every two years, Cambridge voters (80 percent tenants) returned a five-to-four pro–rent control majority to the nine-member city council. At each election, rent control was the hottest issue, and reasonable effort and positive inertia kept it intact.
Although the remaining activists continued to press for pro-tenant positions, real organizing ceased. Into this vacuum stepped the Small Property Owners Association (SPOA). Responding to what they claimed was the rent board’s pro-tenant bias and vowing to do away with Cambridge’s “inherently onerous and unfair” rent control laws, a group of property owners, mostly owner-occupants of small buildings, formed SPOA in 1987.
SPOA began picketing city council meetings, regularly speaking up at rent board hearings, and organizing other property owners. SPOA representatives visited radio talk shows and interested reporters and columnists in publicizing their personal tales of the “horrors” of Cambridge rent control. They displayed signs at university graduations, wrote letters to local and national newspapers, and were able to portray themselves as a grassroots organization fighting for justice and the American way against the “People’s Republic of Cambridge.”
SPOA also presented a more diverse and superficially appealing picture than the corresponding tenant activists. They included young and old, black and white, and women and men in their leadership. Although larger landlords jumped on the bandwagon and over the years contributed large sums to finance the organization, SPOA only showcased people who looked sympathetic.
Its first big test came in the 1989 local elections. Sullivan and two other long-time pro-rent control councilors declined to run, and landlords succeeded in getting a local ballot question, Proposition 1-2-3, before the voters. Proposition 1-2-3 would have allowed landlords to sell condo units to tenants who had lived in their units for two years, thereby converting the units from rental to owner-occupancy and doing away with a large piece of the removal ordinance. Proposition 1-2-3’s supporters declared that it gave tenants a “choice” whether to own or rent. But tenants were not fooled, and Proposition 1-2-3 was defeated two-to-one. Also, for the first time, voters elected a six-to-three pro-rent control City Council.
SPOA then turned to a legal challenge, filing a many-count constitutional attack on Cambridge’s rent control laws. In March 1993, when most of their claims were dismissed, they began to look for other alternatives.
Meanwhile, from 1989 to 1994, SPOA’s media blitz continued. Condo owners lamented that they were not allowed to live in their units. Reports on local news programs featured crying elderly widows and immigrant families contrasted with a few high profile “undeserving tenants,” such as a state supreme court judge and a state legislator with a Cambridge pied-a-terre. SPOA targeted Cambridge’s mayor, a lawyer who stayed on in his rent controlled apartment after his mother died. Articles in legal and business trade journals told SPOA’s version of cases. By 1994, many people outside of Cambridge believed that rent control didn’t work and that it unfairly harmed landlords.
Few, if any, stories reported that rent control allowed thousands of people to live in Cambridge by keeping rents at reasonable levels, or that the rent board’s rent adjustment formulas strongly favored landlords, or that, because the removal permit ordinance eliminated the speculative drive from the rental market, Cambridge was saved from the 1980s real estate boom and subsequent bust. No one read about how many SPOA landlords were able to buy their buildings because rent control kept property prices down. Although the mayor was portrayed as getting a free ride, the fact that he was not a wealthy man and had lived in his apartment for years with his elderly mother was ignored.
The Beginning of the End
In the summer of 1993, SPOA came up with what would turn out to be its trump: a state-wide initiative campaign to ban rent control. The first step was to get the state attorney general to certify the ballot question. Over the objection that the question was unconstitutional under state law because it only applied to “particular localities” (i.e. those with rent control), the attorney general approved the question in September 1993. This paved the way for SPOA—now operating under the name of the Massachusetts Homeowners Coalition (MHC) for campaign finance purposes—to obtain sufficient signatures to place the matter on the November 1994 statewide ballot. Using local Realtors, paid canvassers, and themselves, MHC barely mustered the necessary signatures.
The way to a statewide vote, however, was not yet clear. After receiving permission from the state campaign finance agency, Cambridge and several individuals filed suit, contending that since the ban only affected localities that had rent control, the localities exclusion barred it from the initiative process. The state supreme court (SJC) heard the case in May 1994 and rejected the argument in July.
“Question 9” would thus appear on the ballot in over three hundred cities and towns in Massachusetts, although it would affect only Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge.
The 1994 Campaign
To combat MHC, tenants formed a political action group called the Save Our Communities Coalition (SOCC). After conducting focus group research, SOCC chose a strategy that emphasized how the loss of rent control would impact the elderly, particularly in Boston. The slogan “Bad for Elderly—Bad for You” appeared on SOCC’s bumper stickers and posters. SOCC also organized several demonstrations and meetings, mostly in Cambridge and Boston, but received little media coverage. A letter signed by over 60 Cambridge property owners (homeowners and some owners of rent-controlled buildings) supporting rent control ran as an ad in over 50 newspapers throughout the state.
The American Association of Retired Persons, unions, and a large array of progressive groups endorsed the “Vote No on 9” campaign. The Boston Globe editorialized against Question 9, because it would unfairly interfere with home rule—the rights of cities and towns to fashion local solutions to local problems—and because it was fundamentally undemocratic to allow the rest of the state to decide policy for Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge.
These efforts, however, lost the contest for monetary support and visibility to MHC. In an election year where government regulation was portrayed as the enemy, what better strategy than to use rent control as the prime example of governmental excess? MHC’s logo showed a house with the words “Get Gov’t Out” emblazoned across it. Radio and TV ads focused on a few of SPOA’s prime examples of the “unfairness” of rent control, particularly in Cambridge. Through its far greater financial resources, its access to radio talk shows, and its ready-made network of Realtors, MHC was far more able than SOCC to communicate its message to voters.
On a long election night, the results in eight other ballot questions came in by midnight, but Question 9 was still too close to call. By dawn, the news became painfully clear. Although Question 9 failed in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge, it won the state by 51 percent, mostly from the wealthier suburbs and those communities within reach of the Boston media. As of January 1, 1995, rent control would be banned in Massachusetts.
Perhaps realizing the seriousness of the situation for the first time, Cambridge tenants stormed the next few City Council meetings and demanded that a new home rule petition be sent to the state legislature. Tenants packed City Hall in numbers and diversity unseen since the days of CTOC. Led by activists still around from then, the relatively new low-income neighborhood group Eviction Free Zone (EFZ), and the few CTU regulars, tenants testified to the hardships that the loss of rent control would bring. Nurses and fire-fighters, parents and children, elders who had lived in their apartments for over 50 years all told moving and compelling stories. And finally, the print and broadcast media began reporting them.
SPOA responded by saying that “the voters had spoken,” that SPOA had won, and that the tenants should accept the results and give up.
Pleased that the vote was so close, reacting to tenant outcries, and relying on the majority no votes in their communities, officials from Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline quickly readied home rule petitions. But these officials also assessed the chances of strong legislation passing and being signed by Republican Governor William Weld, fresh from a 70 percent election victory. Although the legislative leadership was supportive, Weld declared he would veto any new rent control laws.
Given Question 9’s January 1, 1995, implementation date and the need to move a bill through the lame-duck legislature before the session’s end on January 3, the Cambridge City Council met almost daily to craft a plan that would meet the concerns of tenants, landlords, the legislature, and the governor. The word from the State House was that if at least six of the nine council members, including those traditionally opposed to rent control, could agree on a compromise, it might be approved.
The debate was emotional and intense. The City Council passed a compromise bill at the eleventh hour before petition needed to be filed at the legislature the next day. One pro-rent control councilor voted against it and one voted “present;” three pro-rent control and three anti-rent control councilors voted for it; and one member, William Walsh, the staunchest anti-rent control councilor, was not there. On November 15, he had been sentenced for federal bank fraud, and under state law, deprived of his council seat. The pro-rent control councilors who supported the compromise agreed that it was a terrible bill, but the only choice, given that Question 9 would ban rent control altogether on January 1. As Frank Duehay, the sole remaining councilor who had voted for rent control in 1970, said in justifying his vote: “This is one of the saddest days of my life… I have to ask, is it better to have something or is it better to have absolutely nothing?”
The new law would have provided for decontrol of most units by July 31, 1995, and would have eliminated restrictions on owner-occupancy of condominiums. It would have kept rent control for five years in buildings with seven units or more for tenants who were 62 or over, physically handicapped, or whose incomes were less than 90 percent of the median for Boston. The petition passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives by enough votes to override a veto. It passed the state Senate by two votes. SPOA continued to lobby against it. Governor Weld repeated his intention to veto it.
Meanwhile another challenge, to the legality of the election itself, was brewing. The nine questions on the 1994 ballot had been the most in Massachusetts in a long time. Although law requires a summary of each question to be printed on the ballot, the secretary of state had ruled that the ballots did not have enough room and that separate summaries could be distributed at the polls. On election day, except in a handful of towns that still used paper ballots, voters found ballots listing only question numbers with a choice of “yes” or “no.” No title or description of the subject matter, much less the actual summary, appeared. Confusion was compounded because on some ballots a “yes” vote was a vote to change the current law (such as Question 9), while on others it was a vote to keep the status quo.
Disturbed by a seemingly flagrant legal violation and responding to widespread reports of voters not receiving any summaries, supporters of rent control and another ballot question sued to invalidate the election. On November 29, 1994, in the first positive legal development for rent-control supporters in over a year since the ballot question fight began, a Superior Court judge enjoined the election results from becoming law.
The fate of all the questions was in doubt. Since this obviously had widespread consequences, the SJC pushed for a full court hearing as soon as possible. This occurred on December 22.
While the ballot question scenario was unfolding, the home rule petitions were stalled at the governor’s office. Tenant advocates knew they didn’t have enough votes to override a veto. Even if the court ruled that the summaries did not have to be on the ballot, it could be too late to prevent rent control from being repealed. Rent control supporters would then have to start over with a new legislature and a hostile governor.
On December 27, the SJC issued an order approving the omission of the summaries from the ballot. The injunction against Question 9 remained in force through the end of the legislative session.
The law immediately decontrolled all units not occupied on November 8, 1994 (election day), by a tenant with an income of 60% or less than the median for Boston ($21,500 for a single person). For tenants who were 62 or over or disabled, the limit was 80% of the median income ($ 27,950). The incomes of all persons residing in a unit were counted, and full-time students were not protected. Rent control for “protected tenants” in buildings with up to twelve units would end on December 31, 1995; those in buildings of over twelve units had until December 31, 1996. The rent board lost jurisdiction over evictions, and removal regulation was eliminated.
Just before midnight on January 3, the legislature enacted the real estate industry law that killed rent control in Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline. Governor Weld signed it the next morning.
What Went Wrong?
Some believe that rent control advocates were too rigid, that Cambridge’s failure to “reform” rent control by responding to legitimate landlord complaints brought the whole system down, that if some provisions had been relaxed, for example, letting owners live in condos, SPOA would not have been pushed to the extreme. Others pointed to the inequity of a system that allowed the mayor and an SJC judge to live in rent controlled apartments while failing to assure that low-rent units went to those who needed them most.
Of course, mistakes were made. CTU and SOCC had failed to recognize and adequately respond to the highly visible examples of wealthy/well-placed tenants living in rent controlled units. This serious underestimation of public perception deprived tenants of a counter to landlord propaganda. Additionally, by focusing on the effect of rent control’s loss on the elderly, instead of also making the home rule and basic democracy arguments, SOCC may have miscalculated. Finally, although CTU purported to speak for Cambridge tenants, their activists were not organizers, and Cambridge tenants did not through the years maintain the type of organization that could have countered SPOA. Even accounting for obvious differences in money and power, Cambridge tenants lost the initiative before they lost the ’94 election.
But it also seems clear that SPOA would not have been satisfied with reforms that made rent control more favorable to landlords. From the outset, the group’s aim was to defeat rent control in Cambridge, which was evident from its repeated statements that rent control was both fundamentally unfair and illegal. Easing various provisions would have only encouraged SPOA to push for more until the goal was achieved: a free market economy in Cambridge’s rent controlled housing—the same system that laid the groundwork in the late ’60s for tenant organizing that led to rent control.
The seeds for rebuilding are now being sown. EFZ has mobilized activists, including veterans from CTOC, labor struggles and neighborhood issues, to begin organizing tenant unions. EFZ is training tenants, providing written materials, offering access to legal advice—in short, re-building a tenants’ movement. It has announced an ambitious “Housing Justice Program” that seeks to negotiate leases with rent increases tied to tenant incomes and just cause eviction protection. The Housing Justice Program also calls for tax abatements for landlords who keep rents at reasonable levels and a real estate transfer tax to capture some of the profit that will be made from sales of newly decontrolled properties.
It is too soon to assess the impact of EFZ’s efforts, but its leadership is composed of respected and experienced tenant advocates. If Cambridge tenants are to reclaim some of the power they lost when they lost rent control, only well-organized and broad-based organizations like EFZ can make that happen.
In the end, Cambridge held off the tide of deregulation longer than anywhere else, until finally the “get gov’t out” fever swept over the city as well as the rest of the country. But Cambridge activists who fought to protect tenants for years can be proud that so many people were protected for so long. And they know from experience that “the struggle continues.”
For updates on what happened to affordable housing in Cambridge and the work of EFZ, see Shelterforce #117 and #94.