Some cause for hope in new tenant protection legislation being filed at the State House


Yesterday, I saw some good news in the local press. A rarity to be sure. The Boston Globe reported that Rep. Mike Connolly and a coalition of other state legislators are about to file a rent control bill. However, during a quick chat with the Cambridge politician, he explained that the new initiative—currently using the placeholder docket number HD.1100—is actually slated to be an omnibus tenant protection bill when its full text is filed in a few weeks.


But it’s true that, among other great things, the proposed legislation will allow municipalities to adopt rent control ordinances without approval from the State House. Effectively ending the statewide prohibition on the pro-tenant reform that has been on the books since November 1994. When the real estate industry outspent housing advocates seven to one in a referendum campaign that it won by a slim margin of 51 to 49 percent. Eliminating rent control in the three cities—Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge—that had still had it. The Somerville Board of Aldermen having already eliminated that city’s rent control system in 1979, according to the Harvard Crimson. Boston had partial rent control for most of the years from the passage of the state’s enabling law for cities over 50,000 residents in 1970 until its defeat by referendum. And Brookline and Cambridge had so-called “full” rent control (which, as readers will see, didn’t cover most rental units).


I lived through that fight. That vicious, dirty fight. Where the real estate industry blanketed the Commonwealth with an ad campaign that completely misrepresented rent control to suburban communities with no direct experience with the reform. Because that industry had been previously unable to dislodge it in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge—where rent control, defined as the ability of a government to limit what landlords are able to charge for some rental housing units, enjoyed solid support among renters and broadly left-leaning homeowners alike.


All three communities voted to keep the tenant protection in place by significant majorities in the fateful referendum. Tenants rallied in the streets and gave impassioned testimony in every government body that held a hearing on rent control. Yet they were all overruled by conservative bedroom communities with no skin in the game in question.


In 1994, I was a 27-year-old with no college degree, struggling to produce the first issues of a small national periodical (As We Are: the magazine for working young people) and running the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union/UAW Local 1981 as its half-time director. Although my magazine was technically for-profit, I was only able to pay myself a tiny sporadic stipend for the 40-plus hours I worked on top of my poorly paid “job job”… that I sometimes supplemented with contract and temp gigs on the side. All told I made about $18,000 a year at the time. Which was equivalent to $31,000 and change in today’s money, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator.


I was able to work both jobs out of a small Cambridge office building owned by a wealthy couple who liked my union and were supportive when I told them I was starting a magazine. They took out ads in the publication, but more importantly let me use more space than I had negotiated for when I moved the union office there the previous fall. Having commuted to work from Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood to Cambridge between September 1993 and June 1994, I was relieved to get a sublet deal for a rent-controlled apartment very close to my office for $250 a month from a friendly union member who was going away for the summer.


And in August 1994, I was absolutely over the moon to score a rent-controlled “SRO” (Single Room Occupancy) unit with a shared bathroom down the hall in an old Cambridge rooming house right near my sublet and my office. With days to spare before I would have had to grab whatever housing situation I could find wherever I could find it. The rent? $275 a month including heat and utilities. Or $473.85 a month in today’s money. Meaning I was able to live in Cambridge with a rent under 20 percent of my average monthly income of $1,500 (or $2,584.62 today).


It may have been a crappy space with a month-by-month “at will” lease—the smell of pesticide and roach droppings embedded in the innumerable layers of cheap off-white paint that had been repeatedly slathered over every surface (including the communal shower) in the century since its construction. A barely functional hot plate and tiny sink being its only amenities. But to me, it was paradise. It allowed me to be a creative person in the city of my choice and to pursue projects that I would have not been able to manage otherwise. So, I couldn’t believe my luck.


Because, like most young people in Boston, Brookline, or Cambridge who very much wanted to get into a rent-controlled apartment at that time, I had been unable to find one previously. One flaw of the system that I agree needed to be fixed was that some of the young working people and students that moved into the first rent-controlled units when the reform was introduced in 1970 were still holding onto them through the mid-1980s and early 1990s—despite having become successful professionals in the interim. While I was bouncing from bad housing situation to bad housing situation, including a few months of homelessness in 1987. Although most people I met with rent-controlled apartments in that period were working poor.


The National Bureau of Economic Research working paper “Housing Market Spillovers: Evidence from the End of Rent Control in Cambridge, Massachusetts” echoes my subjective experience, stating: “While there was no formal mechanism to allocate controlled units to low-income households, limited quantitative evidence indicates that less affluent residents and students were overrepresented in controlled units—though a significant number of units were also occupied by wealthy professionals.” Meaning that even though rent control was doing what it was supposed to do in 1994—enabling working-class people to live across much of Cambridge, outside of scarce public housing—there were definitely professionals staying in units that they should have relinquished.


So, many young working people like me remained at the mercy of the regular rental market. Which the NBER paper makes clear still controlled over 60 percent of the available units. As “non-owner occupied rental houses, condominiums, or apartments built prior to 1969” were covered by rent control. Accounting for only about a third of available units. While “units built after 1968, older non-residential units converted to residential status, and owner-occupied units faced no threat of rent control.”


Far from the “socialism” decried by real estate industry propagandists to this day when attacking any legislation at any level of government even smacking of rent control, such regulations in practice were a minor capitalist reform that allowed landlords to continue making profits throughout its existence. And didn’t affect most rental units anyway.


What the minority of landlords that were affected didn’t get to do was make the super profits that have become so common since. Which is exactly what I and every other tenant activist fighting to keep rent control a quarter century ago predicted.


In 1994, industry flacks told a credulous corporate media—that was busily sucking up the fat advertising checks the real estate industry paymasters shoveled at it—and every ill-informed suburban voter who would listen that it was evil government-sponsored rent control and those dastardly tenants’ unions themselves that were to blame for blocking the weak and helpless real estate industry from building lots of low- and middle-income housing in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge.


Which was nonsense. The rich and politically powerful real estate industry wanted to kill as many housing regulations as possible so they could make as much money as possible. Every tenant activist and ally knew it, and said so… loudly. Literally screaming in landlords’ faces at a couple of crazy Cambridge City Council hearings I can remember. But we got outspent and lost.


And what happened when the referendum took effect in January 1995—a mere two months after it was passed? Many working-class tenants in rent- controlled apartments were totally screwed.


In my case, the hammer dropped in September 1995. The month my landlord jacked the rents in my building by something like 20 percent. In response, I organized a tenant’s union. A group, to be clear, of largely working poor people. All of us, like every rent control tenant I’ve spoken to since, were completely shocked by the defeat of the housing reform that allowed so many of us to live with some modicum of dignity in an already expensive region. In which there was never even close to enough public housing to handle the demand.


We wrote a petition to the landlord asking him to agree to reasonable rent increases and were rebuffed. We met with a longtime tenant activist to decide what to do next and agreed to start a rent strike until our demands were met. We held out for months, but ultimately people started fleeing as the landlord prepared to take legal action.


The moment rent control was dead, our fates were sealed. We were crushed, as so many tenants like us were crushed. A few old people and people with medical conditions or other extenuating circumstances were given extensions to keep their former rents for a bit longer. But ultimately, everyone was thrown to the wolves of the real estate market of the “go-go ’90s.”


Greedy bottom-feeding landlords jacked the rents around the region, and thus began our gradual descent to the Boston real estate bubble of 2019. Where wildly expensive rental and housing stock is the order of the day. Capitalists from all over the world buy up property here, push prices even higher, and leave many units empty as places to park their often ill-gotten cash. Huge developers build “luxury” condo towers on any available scrap of land. And working- and middle-class people can no longer afford to live in cities that once had a place for us—the people that built them.


Just as many people driven out of Cambridge fled to Somerville in the early days of this process, a ripple effect has occurred that has seen ever-increasing rental and housing costs spread outward from the urban core into the near suburbs and beyond. Now, working- and middle-class people who don’t already own their own homes are being driven from Somerville to Everett, Medford, Malden, and Woburn. The same thing is happening all around Boston. The farther out people go in search of slightly more affordable housing, the worse public transportation service gets. Forcing people to get cars or use Uber, Lyft, and cabs to get around—if they can afford either option. Worsening traffic and pollution problems, and stealing people’s time by doubling or even tripling their commutes to jobs in the city.


As for me, after an initial sojourn in Somerville I ended up back in Cambridge as my income increased somewhat. Fifteen years ago, I landed in a small subterranean two-bedroom in the very same neighborhood where I had once lived in two rent-controlled apartments. The landlord of my building complex is a decent enough guy. He doesn’t force the few older tenants like myself and my partner to pay market rate—making his money from the fresh crop of wealthy international students that arrive every September. But my share of the rent and utilities is about to go up a few percent, as it does every year without fail. And I’ll be paying about $1,400 a month on the same block I once paid $473.85 a month in 2019 dollars for a share of living space that, while nicer, is only marginally larger than the big room I had in 1994. Which, despite my being the good little capitalist owner of a commercial metro weekly newspaper and the head of its affiliated nonprofit, is almost 50 percent of my take-home pay. Or, put another way, about a 30 percent larger slice of my income than I was paying to live in the same area 25 years ago.


That is the legacy that the real estate industry has left the working people of Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, and every city and town around the state suffering from ever-increasing rents. And that is why I strongly support the rebirth of rent control in Massachusetts… and suggest that you all do the same.


Once it’s filed, I’ll take a detailed look at the full text of the omnibus tenant protection bill HD.1100 in part two of this column.


Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.