Land of No Control/Mass. cities coping with end of rent regulations

by Katti Gray
Newsday, June 13, 1997
Boston - Except for an occasional trip to the doctor, Gertrude Frankel says she rarely steps outside the building that, for 60 years, has been her home: the place where she arrived as a bride, retired from work and nursed two dying husbands.

If left up to Frankel, 88, and on a fixed income, it also is where she will spend her final days.

But after voters in a 1994 referendum eliminated rent controls for 45,000 tenants, her landlord proposed raising rent on Frankel's one-bedroom apartment from $294 to $775 a month.

``I know this place like I know the back of my hand because I have been here for so long. I have had my fun and am content to go when the good Lord wants me. But why should this happen to us - not only me - at this point in my life?'' said Frankel, who is childless and lives in Boston's Brighton neighborhood.

Three years after landlords spent more than $1 million campaigning to convince 51 percent of voters to eliminate rent controls in Boston, Cambridge and Brookline, the last Massachusetts cities to have rent protections - the impact of decontrol has begun to emerge through anecdotes and some data. It is still unclear what has happened to the bulk of tenants who formerly lived under rent regulation. But Massachusetts' experience might serve as a model of what such change can yield, as New York lawmakers decide the fate of rent regulations covering 2.1 million tenants, mainly in New York City and its suburbs. The regulations are set to expire at midnight Sunday.

In Massachusetts, landlords insist that decontrol has not met opponents' forecast of immediate, all-out chaos.

``The sky has not fallen,'' said Edwin Shanahan, managing director of the Rental Housing Association, the largest organization representing area landlords.

And, to a degree, tenant advocates agree. But advocates also say that tenants face an uncertain future on the housing front.

Said Meir Lakien, executive director of the Massachusetts Tenants Organization: ``There haven't been masses of people dying in the streets. But there is a human catastrophe in the number of people who lost their homes. Whole neighborhoods have been rewritten as a lot of longtime tenants moved on. And instead of paying thirty to forty percent of their income in rent, some people are now paying as much as seventy percent. It's making the city less and less affordable, and less and less diverse.''

City officials and real-estate industry representatives say rents rose an average of 14 percent last year.

So far, projections that decontrol would prompt more housing construction have been realized in the form of 2,500 units being built in the Boston area with monthly rents of $4,000. Plans have been laid for 280 units with rents affordable to a range of working-class and middle-class tenants. Landlords say their new profits are financing repairs they previously could not afford, though tenant advocates say the improvements are hardly as widespread as property owners claim.

No complete profile of who lived in rent-controlled apartments, their family size or income is recorded by either public officials or tenant advocates.

Since the phase-out began in 1995, the broadest snapshot of former rent-regulated tenants has been of the elderly whom public and nonprofit groups targeted for housing assistance.

As for other tenants, anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the more affluent renters bought homes or simply paid higher rents. Poorer tenants appear to have moved in with relatives, into cheaper city neighborhoods or suburbs where rents also have begun to climb.

In January, the elderly comprised almost all of 1,000 tenants who completed a City of Boston questionnaire aimed at determining which tenants were the poorest and most needed help. At that time, 16,000 Bostonians were the last wave of tenants whose units were decontrolled.

``We know there were more elderly people out there. But a lot of them were scared. They didn't want to stir up things with the landlords,''said Joyce Johns, an analyst with the city's Rental Housing Resource Center.

The center earmarked more than 250 federal Section 8 grants to cover rising rents for elderly people such as Frankel - arthritic, asthmatic and living on a $808 monthly pension - whose application for the subsidies has not been finalized. Meanwhile, city officials are negotiating with Frankel's landlord on whether he would consider a smaller rent hike and accept the government aid.

But even Section 8 will prove a finite resource in the long run, said Patricia Canavan, housing policy advisor to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

In neighboring Cambridge, similar rental assistance also is being given.

But in Brookline, city officials chose not to offer rental aid but instead offered each household formerly under rent control a one-time $2,000 stipend to help with relocation.

Private agencies such as the Fenway Community Development Corp. also are weighing in on behalf of the elderly.

With funding from a Boston hospital and assistance from a senior citizens project, Fenway in February found that 209 elderly tenants in that community needed help. The group arranged for zero to moderate ($20 and $25) rent increases for 83 of them. Of the remainder, 43 could afford their rent increases; five bought their units; 10 were placed in subsidized complexes reserved for the elderly; eight won Section 8 certificates, and four are fighting eviction.

Rent laws were enacted in Massachusetts in 1970. When they lapsed five years later, only Boston, Cambridge and Brookline passed measures keeping the laws intact. In 1976, the Boston City Council voted to allow decontrol of apartments as they became vacant. Cambridge and Brookline did not.

By 1994, landlords were still fuming that rents on tens of thousands of apartments remained regulated. They held out several examples of what they considered abuses of a system presumed to aid the neediest, including the fact that rent-regulated apartments in Cambridge had gone to a state Supreme Court justice.

``This whole issue really came down to explaining how unfair and unequitable this system was to property owners,'' said landlord representative Shanahan whose agency represents 630 owners. ``It had nothing to do with greed . . . Unfortunately, some people in our society are hungry. But we don't force Stop 'n' Shop to sell bread at ten cents a loaf.''

Landlords insist that the housing market will take care of the Boston area's needs, as developers build rental units with price tags to suit a range of incomes.

As tenant advocates contemplate how they might lobby for renewed controls, landlords are seeking additional changes, such as cutting the number of days an evicted tenant must vacate the premises from 10 to five and requiring tenants to pay their own utility bills.

As those issues are debated, Shirlene Barnes, senior advocacy coordinator for the Fenway group, said agencies such as hers are trying to forecast the future and encourage, among other things, city officials to set aside for affordable housing some new property tax revenues from rising profits on decontrolled apartments.

``What we're doing now, all of these things are short-term solutions,'' Barnes said. ``As we look over the long haul, everybody is really bracing themselves.''