CALL it Peking-on-the-Charles or the People's Republic of
Cambridge, this university town has long had the reputation for
being what conservatives love to call a "hotbed of liberalism."
The city has a Peace Commission, the mayor is both black and
gay, and the high school was the first in the country to distribute
Then there's rent control, perhaps the most powerful symbol of
this left-wing city. Liberals say the practice, whereby the city
sets rents for many apartments that are below market rates,
maintains a diverse population in a hot real-estate market.
Conservatives says the practice exerts a Soviet-style control over
an owner's ability to determine rents and to evict tenants.
Rent control's days may be numbered, however. Massachusetts
voters will vote tomorrow on Question 9, a referendum that would
abolish rent control in Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline.
The policy is being rethought around the country.
Property-rights advocates in six California cities are challenging
rent-control laws. Other cities, including New York and Washington,
also are taking a hard look at the practice. Cambridge enacted rent
control 23 years ago in what was termed a housing emergency to
provide affordable housing for low- to moderate-income people and
elderly people on fixed incomes.
"It will be devastating for people who rely on rent control,"
says Janet Murray, a coordinator of Food for Free, a collective
that distributes donated food to the poor. "That's a cross-section
of the population, not just low-income but moderate-income people,
civil employees, letter carriers, store clerks, and teachers."
Cambridge resident Gloria Lecesse said the Rent Control Board
intervened when her landlord wanted to raise the rent
substantially. "How can you ask someone who brings home $800 a
month to pay $800 in rent? It's baffling. If rent control is voted
out, I don't have any hope."
"The ballot question dumps a lot of people out of their housing
summarily as of January," says Cambridge Mayor Ken Reeves.
He probably won't be one of them. It's people like the mayor,
who makes $43,000 and lives in a $400-a-month rent-controlled
apartment, not Ms. Lecesse, that Question 9 supporters say are a
prime example of why rent control is not doing what it was intended
"Upwards of 87 percent of people on rent control are advantaged
- white, single, college-educated, and in their prime earning
years," says Denise Jillson, chairwoman of the Massachusetts
Homeowners Coalition, a group of large realty companies and small
property owners that is pushing Question 9.
"Rent control places the burden of providing affordable housing
on property owners and in many cases the property owners are less
affluent than the tenants," says Ms. …