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Seen on the net - re: Rent Control in Boston

Posted by Halibut on May 24, 1996 at 11:18:06:

I saw the following on the net:

The Small Property Owner, October 1995

The Price of Freedom

by Jon Maddox, author of Ballot Question 9 which abolished rent control in

In 1988, my wife Maria and I bought a condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It
was a great location, near the Charles River, along which I would go
running, against the background of the Boston skyline. As an appellate
litigator, I liked the convenience to the court houses in downtown Boston.

We knew that the unit was a "rent controlled" condo under Cambridge's very
strict rent control law, and technically was supposed to be rented out. But
about 2,000 such units were occupied by their owners and this provision of
the rent control regulations had never been enforced. We were jokingly
referred to as "condo criminals," since theoretically we could be fined $500
per day and even go to jail for violating the rent control laws. But this is
America. The government would not really punish you for the crime of living
in your own home.

Until the crackdown. In the fall of 1992, Terry Morris, the Cambridge Rent
Control Board director, began checking titles at the county registry of
deeds. Those condos owned in trust were suspected of being illegally
occupied by their owners. Lists of hundreds of suspects were drawn up and
the Rent Board began systematically ordering people to appear before it and
prove that they did not live in their condos. People began asking each
other, "Did you get your appearance notice? Are you on the list? Have they
found you yet?"

Tenants began turning in their neighbors who, they knew, were illegal
owner-occupiers. The banks stopped writing mortgages for these condos.
Suddenly, you could not sell your units. For most of us, the rent-controlled
"rent" of $200 or $300 was a third or less of the cost of our mortgages. We
could not afford to leave, yet we were faced with $500 per day fines if we

My friend Bruce Lahn was a refugee from the People's Republic of China, who
had demonstrated for democracy in Tienanmen Square. He bought a
rent-controlled condo while doing graduate work at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. When the Rent Board ordered him to appear, he
simply went down and told them that he lived in his condo. The Board gave
him and his wife 60 days to move out of their home. "Go to hell," he told
the board, and walked out. He reminded me of the guy who stood up to the
column of tanks in Tienanmen Square. "Just my luck," he told me. "I escape
the People's Republic of China and end up in the People's Republic of

Most people were not as brave. People got unlisted phone numbers and took
their names off their doors. They stopped getting resident parking stickers,
permitting them to park on the streets. Some people moved out and lost
thousands of dollars while renting to someone else, who was often in better
financial shape than they were. You heard stories of people having nervous

The city council was overwhelmingly pro-rent control. The mayor, Ken Reeves,
a Harvard-educated lawyer, actually lived in a rent controlled apartment.
"Rent control isn't for poor people -- it's for everybody," he would say. In
response to pleas for help, he said, "I didn't write the law. I just enforce
the law."

In the spring of 1993, I went to a meeting of a group called the Small
Property Owners Association (SPOA) of Cambridge. SPOA had filed a lawsuit to
try to get the rent control laws declared unconstitutional. As an attorney,
I knew that their chances of success were slim and that it would be years
before there would be any results. I told the group that they should file an
initiative petition, and ask the voters of the state to prohibit rent
control once and for all. They smiled knowingly and explained to me how they
had had Barbara Anderson, the proponent of Proposition 2 1/2, the local tax
limit petition, to address one of their meetings. They decided it was just
too much for them to handle. But, they told me, if you want to write the
petition, you certainly are welcome to do so. For some reason, I heard
myself promising to write the petition and get it approved by the Attorney

On the way home, my wife asked me, "Do you have any idea what you are
getting yourself into?" Fortunately, I did not. I researched the rent
control prohibition laws on the books in 26 other states. Drafting the
petition was surprisingly difficult. The problem was that Massachusetts
excluded from the ballot questions that only affect a few localities -- and
rent control only existed in Boston, Cambridge and Brookline. The solution I
came up with was to prohibit rent control except in a very limited form.
This limited rent control applied only to units with a market rent of $400
or less per month, would last only six months, and would require
municipalities to reimburse landlords for the cost of rent control. Now the
petition had "statewide application." In September of 1993, the Attorney
General approved it.

Then all we had to do was collect 70,286 signatures by the end of November.
The 1,000 members of SPOA felt overwhelmed. By mid-October, we had about
10,000 signatures. But one of our volunteers, Walter Dixon, kept coming in
with hundreds, then thousands of signatures. Other people, including myself,
went out with Walter and learned the art of collecting signatures in front
of supermarkets, at town dumps, at local elections and county fairs. by the
end of November, we were getting 10,000 signatures a day. Ultimately, we got
on the ballot with 34 signatures more than we needed. Somebody up there
liked us.

We were up 2 to 1 in the polls as of June 1994, heading into the November
election. But the liberal Boston Globe began a vicious smear campaign
against us. They said we were an "industry attack on poor elderly women."
According to the Globe, the vast majority of rent controlled tenants were
poor elderly women. Where did they get this idea? From Constance Doty, the
director of the Boston Rent Equity Board. This was her personal opinion. The
truth came out after we won the election. Less than 10% of these tenants
could qualify as having moderate or low incomes under a rent-control
phaseout program. Less than half of that number was elderly. So much for the
"poor elderly women" lie. At least the Globe printed my letter calling their
tactics "Loebism on the Left," a reference to the famously nasty
conservative editor of the Manchester, New Hampshire, Union Leader.

It also bothered us to be called "the real estate industry." We were a truly
grassroots uprising of property owners. The big guys had sat on their hands
through 25 years of rent control. But nobody gave us credit for the miracle
we had pulled off. The media just could not believe that ordinary citizens
could take on the bureaucracies and the tenant activists and the press --
and win. But we did, despite the Globe throwing handgrenades at us, by 2.8%.

I would like to say the story has a happy ending, but it only has a moral.
Then tenant activists have just filed an initiative petition of their own to
bring back rent control. If they get the signatures, we will vote on it in
November 1996. The moral is this:

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

October 1995

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