Shelter Shorts

Rent Decontrol  =  Rising Rents & Falling Diversity

Three years after the repeal of rent regulations in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a survey of 1,000 tenants in formerly rent-controlled units shows skyrocketing rents and declining diversity. Median rents for decontrolled units jumped from $504 in 1994 to $775 in 1997, a 54 percent increase, according to a January 31 article in the Boston Globe. Turnover has also increased dramatically, with 38 percent of former rent control tenants moving since the repeal. Rents in units that turned over increased by an average of 85 percent.

Cambridge’s strict rent control laws applied to 14,500 units before they were lifted in January 1995. The hikes have resulted in a shift in demographics in Cambridge, with many elderly and longtime residents leaving, and more affluent tenants, particularly students, moving in.

“Families are the ones getting hurt here,” said Dan Wuenschel, executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority. “We have, to a certain extent, been able to help the elderly and people with disabilities. But if you are a single mom or even a two-parent family, you are the one getting hurt.”

A decline in federal housing subsidies has made the situation even more difficult for low-income renters. According to the Globe article, about 4,500 families are waiting to obtain rent subsidies or vouchers. Cambridge officials are lobbying the state legislature for a one-percent transfer tax on property sales, exempting the first $300,000, to add revenue to the city’s affordable housing programs, currently funded at $7.5 million annually.

Opponents of rent control cited in the article argued that rents were artificially low under rent control, and they attributed a recent increase in rental housing construction to the repeal of the rent laws.

Cambridge Housing Authority: 617-864-2247.


Housing Authority to Favor Working Families

After winning a two-year court battle  against  the Legal Aid Society of New York, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) will begin offering preferential treatment to working families when filling vacant apartments in the city’s public housing projects. This leaves some advocates concerned that many of the most poor in NYC will be left without a home.

The policy shift – in keeping with the general trend of national public housing policy – will assign a priority code to people with incomes near the upper limit of the eligibility among about 130,000 applicants for the system’s 180,000 apartments, 6,000 to 8,000 of which become available every year. The poorer the family is, the lower its priority code will be, according to the Dec. 15 New York Times. Only families with members who are working, receiving unemployment benefits, or unable to work because of disabilities will be given any priority code at all.

Opponents of the changes insist NYCHA is trying to make up for a loss of federal dollars by raising rents. “The real issue,” said Scott Rosenberg, litigation director for the Legal Aid Society of New York “is that the Housing Authority is seeking more income by the somewhat perverse means of excluding those in greatest need.” Legal Aid did manage to prevent the plan from being implemented in 21 of the system’s 320 projects, where the new policy was shown to conflict with a desegregation plan.

Although NYCHA has been one of the nation’s most successful PHAs in maintaining a 50-50 balance of working-class and poor tenants, that ratio has been more difficult to maintain in the last decade. NYCHA officials argue that the new plan is the only way to prevent the city’s public housing developments from deteriorating and ultimately being demolished, as has happened in other cities across the country.

“Housing is a privilege, not necessarily a right,” said Sara Manzano, an assistant general counsel for the New York and New Jersey HUD office, which supports the changes in New York City. “We have to decide who gets the preference,” she told the Times.

(See also More PHAs to favor working poor)

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

Progressive Foundations Need to Concentrate

Compared to their progressive counterparts, the nation’s 12 largest conservative foundations have been very successful in influencing public policy despite their more limited resources.

A 1997 report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, attributes conservative foundations’ success to their concentrated efforts to provide large, multi-year general support grants to organizations advancing multi-issue, well-coordinated, and visionary conservative agendas. More than two-thirds of the total grant dollars from conservative foundations went to national organizations focused on influencing national policy. These foundations poured $77 million into their top five grantees in 1995 alone according to the report, particularly for projects that aimed to market their ideas through publications, advertising, and media campaigns.

Meanwhile, fractured progressive causes are constrained by smaller, single-year, one-issue grants administered by foundations too narrowly focused and intent on “accountability,” Michael H. Shuman points out in The Nation magazine of Jan. 12/19, 1998.

According to the report, the top eight grantees on the progressive side operated on $18.6 million combined. The reason for this, Shuman said, lies in progressive foundations’ unwillingness to get involved with partisan political issues, and their lack of focus on connecting local organizations to national efforts. He concludes that progressive foundations would more effectively spend their resources with fewer but larger grants to multi-year initiatives connected to larger national debates and movements.

Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, $25 from NCRP, 202-387-9177.

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