Controversial Rent Control Falters Intended to Protect Tenants' Rights, Device Is Often Misapplied

Article excerpt

PRINCE Frederick of Denmark almost received a royal bargain early this summer. Harvard University planned to lodge the Danish crown prince, who is a visiting student, in a plush, four-bedroom house. Not only was the house in a prime location near Harvard Square, but - best of all - its rent was kept artificially low by a city rent-control law.

After an angry Cambridge City Council asked Harvard to settle its royal visitor elsewhere, Prince Frederick voluntarily agreed to live in student housing.

But highly publicized cases like the prince's have embarrassed even some rent control advocates, who defend the regulations as necessary to prevent low-income tenants from being evicted. Backlash fueled

The cases have helped fuel a backlash against the laws in many of the approximately 200 communities - most of them in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York - that adopted rent limits in the 1970s.

* In Berkeley, Calif., a bastion of liberal activism, voters elected a moderate slate to the rent board in 1990. Since then, the board has approved the largest rent increases in the history of Berkeley's 12-year-old rent-control statute. A ballot initiative that would have rolled back the higher rents was defeated on June 2.

* In San Francisco, voters in 1991 decisively rejected a "vacancy control" measure that would have toughened the city's rent-control regulations. The existing law limits rent increases on current tenants, but allows landlords to charge the market price to new renters.

* In Brookline, Mass., voters decided in 1990 to gradually phase out rent control. The initiative was passed by homeowners angry at the fact that they were having to pay an ever-larger share of the city's property taxes because rent control was keeping down the cost of apartments.

Here in Cambridge, rent-control opponents have little hope of winning at the polls. Seventy-seven percent of Cambridge residents are renters, and there is a solid pro-rent control majority on the city council.

So Cambridge landlords have turned to the courts for relief. An initial hearing is scheduled Friday in Middlesex County Superior Court on a lawsuit charging that the Cambridge rent statute represents an unconstitutional taking of property.

Although the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Berkeley's rent laws, Cambridge landlords are optimistic about the outcome of their suit.

First, the Cambridge statute is even more restrictive than Berkeley's. In Cambridge, for example, landlords frustrated by low rents cannot simply leave their apartments vacant; the city fines them heavily for doing so. Second, the Supreme Court is more conservative today than the body which upheld Berkeley's law in the early 1980s.

"We can't take it anymore," says Denise Jillson, a leader of Cambridge's Small Property Owners Association. "If the courts throw out {the suit}, I don't know what we'll do. We can't live and maintain our buildings for rents {as low as} $200 a month."

The backlash against rent control is based, in part, on a number of recent studies that show it has had a negative impact.

A 1991 study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development linked rent control with increases in homelessness - allegedly because rent ordinances reduce the number of apartments available for rent. …