Bay State to Decide Rent Control's Fate Cambridge's Image as Peking-on-the-Charles Hinges on State-Wide Vote on Housing

By Catherine Foster, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 7, 1994 | Go to article overview

Bay State to Decide Rent Control's Fate Cambridge's Image as Peking-on-the-Charles Hinges on State-Wide Vote on Housing


Catherine Foster, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 condoms.

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 to do.

"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. …

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