Rent Control Post Mortem

Immediately after a 1994 statewide referendum ended rent control in Massachusetts, a tenants’ organization known as Eviction Free Zone (“EFZ”), sponsored in part by Cambridge’s anti-poverty agency, began a campaign to preserve affordable housing. Relying on tenant outrage at the loss of rent control and a resurgence of activism, EFZ sought to bring together tenants living in public, private, and HUD-subsidized “expiring use” housing.

EFZ demanded that the city allocate $10 million for affordable housing, pass a real estate transfer tax, and petition the state legislature to protect “expiring use” buildings. The group also tried to revive moribund large-landlord building associations and to negotiate rent increases and eviction moratoriums with landlords.

Another tenant group, Save our Communities Coalition (“SOCC”), arose to focus on building a state-wide coalition uniting activists in urban, suburban, and rural areas around development issues. SOCC drafted a petition called the Community Empowerment Act to put before the voters at the 1998 election to reinstate rent control and give localities more power over land use. Although SOCC has started to cultivate contacts outside of Boston and Cambridge, it has not generally had the support of the EFZ and other tenant groups.

In the aftermath of rent control’s loss, even the most anti-rent control City Council members publicly favored doing “something” for affordable housing. The removal of what had been characterized as the most divisive issue in the city became the vehicle housing advocates used to “bring people together.”

These efforts have been partially successful. The council passed a transfer tax (applicable to transactions over $300,000 – a significant share of the market) and “expiring use” limitations; both are awaiting approval by the state. The city allotted $5 million to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Tenant advocates helped advise hundreds of low-income, elderly, and disabled tenants who qualified for protected status under the rent control phase-out, and hundreds more facing displacement. Meanwhile, city officials brokered a deal, supported by EFZ, under which Harvard University, the largest landlord of rent controlled units, agreed to sell 100 apartments to a nonprofit to preserve them as affordable housing for people whose incomes are 80 percent or less of the median.

However, no landlord has negotiated building-wide rent increase or eviction protection, and no landlord has agreed to continue “protected status” beyond December 31, 1996, the last applicable date. Further, only 2,500 tenants applied for protected status, of which about 2,000 were approved.

No one really knows yet how the ending of the laws is affecting the people in Cambridge’s approximately 15,000 rent controlled units. Anecdotal, but consistent, information describes massive tenant turnover, skyrocketing rents, and numerous condo conversion notices. A City-commissioned study, now underway and due out this fall, should provide reliable data.



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