The Demise Of Rent Control

Rent control in Boston began in 1968, when exceptional pressures on the rental housing market prompted the city to enact laws that controlled rents and protected tenants from arbitrary evictions and excessive rent increases. (Massachusetts state law gives tenants some basic rights, but does little else to protect them.)

In 1975 Boston began vacancy decontrol, but the important protections against arbitrary evictions and rent increases were later restored. By 1994 only 20,000 units were left with fully controlled rents. Three times that number, 60,000 units, had become vacancy decontrolled, where the landlord could charge any rent to new tenants, but they retained basic tenant protections once they moved in.

Landlords buy referendum

Despite the fact that owners could charge whatever they wanted for rent under the vacancy decontrol program, the real-estate industry continued to oppose the remaining basic tenant protections. In 1994 they put a statewide ballot question, Question #9, to the voters of Massachusetts, which eliminated tenants’ rights laws in local cities and towns. The real-estate industry raised 91% of its money for the Yes on #9 campaign from big business, and had a 10-to-1 spending advantage.

Yet with all their money, false TV advertising, and conservative talk radio on their side, the real-estate industry still managed only 51% of the vote. Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge voted resoundingly NO on Question #9, as did almost all the poorer towns in the state.

Landlords write state law

After the election, the real-estate industry, fearing public disgust and a likely overturn of the election by the State Supreme Court, huddled with Governor William Weld and wrote Chapter 282 of the Acts of 1994, which eliminated all local rent-control laws. Chapter 282 temporarily extended tenant protection for low-income households, but only if they lived in fully rent-controlled units.

With the phaseout of local tenants’ rights in most apartments in Boston, the tenant population is in a state of upheaval. Rents are skyrocketing in many neighborhoods, evictions are up, and longtime residents are being forced out.

According to a July 21, 1996 report by the Boston Globe, the average rent in the city rose from $809 in the spring of 1995 to $924 in the spring of 1996; an increase of 14%. Evictions in the city housing court went up almost 50%. There were approximately 5,000 evictions in 1994, an average of about 420 per month, and 12,000 between Jan. 1, 1995 and Aug. 31, 1996, an average of 600 per month. Of those evictions, 4,092 were in housing units formerly protected by rent control or vacancy decontrol.

The 250 households that reported directly to the Massachusetts Tenants Organization about the impact of Chapter 282 in 1995 and 1996 painted a stark picture. Their average age was 58, their average combined household income was $19,962 and their landlords were demanding rent increases that averaged 56%. A survey in the Fenway area shows that 60% of the senior citizens who were protected by rent control in the fall of 1994 have since left the neighborhood.

After the loss of rent-control protection for approximately 70,000 units in 1995 and 1996, the city government determined that 7,500 households were still covered under the extension law until the end of 1996. The 800 people who responded by early October 1996 to a city survey of those 7,500 households were predominantly elderly and low-income.

Who are these people? Below is a sample:

Katherine, an 87-year-old woman from Hyde Park. Her landlord tried to raise the rent 176% in 1995, but Katherine had rent-control protection until January 1997.

Patrick, age 75, disabled, lives with his wife in the Fenway. Their household income is $12,000 a year. Their landlord gave verbal notice that he will raise the rent from $400 to $700 when their protection expires in January 1997.

Diane, of Mattapan, lives with her mother and her daughter. Landlord tried to raise rent 55% in 1995, but Diane had rent-control protection until January 1997.

Susan, age 75, of Brighton. Susan came to this country in 1936 and has lived in her apartment for 27 years. She is concerned about being forced to move.

Anonymous, age 59, of Brighton; $10,000 annual income; rent $455. Landlord gave verbal notice that rent will increase to “market” ($750 in the building) when protection expired.

Bari, age 48, of Brighton; $23,000 annual income. Landlord gave verbal notice of 200% increase for January 1997.

Wynter, age 48, of Brighton; $11,000 annual income. Lost protection in January 1995 (vacancy decontrol). Rent $435, increased $290 in May 1995.

Shirley, from the Fenway, a single working mother with one daughter. Rent was $850; landlord increased it $200 on Aug. 1, 1996.

Tara and John, a Brighton family with two kids. Rent was $700; landlord increased it $200 on Aug. 1, 1996.

Efforts to Fix the Problem: Legislative

In April 1996, after intense efforts by the a tenant coalition including MTO, City Life/Vida Urbana of Jamaica Plain, East Boston Ecumenical Council, Allston-Brighton CDC, and the Fenway CDC, the City Council and Mayor Thomas Menino passed an ordinance protecting tenants in condominiums. But condominiums are a small portion of the overall rental housing stock in Boston.

The Council and the Mayor also passed home-rule petitions to protect tenants from arbitrary evictions and to protect tenants in formerly subsidized housing. Both of those initiatives are stalled in the State House, with little or no support from the legislative leadership.

Efforts to Fix the Problem: City Programs

The Boston Tenant Coalition also promoted some administrative steps that the city could take to help alleviate the impact on tenants from the loss of rent control. Some of these initiatives have been adopted by the city’s Rental Housing Resource Center (formerly the Boston Rent Equity Board): a mediation program for landlords and tenants; a top priority for displaced tenants to receive Section 8 rental-assistance vouchers; and housing-search help for tenants who can move to alternative affordable housing.

But for many of the tenant households already affected by the rent-control phaseout, the efforts outlined above have not been enough. Whether they will be enough to help those that will be affected in the near future remains to be seen.

While supporting remedial efforts to help individual tenants, MTO has been actively promoting and organizing tenant unions. Through tenant unions based in buildings or neighborhoods, tenants can collectively bargain with the property owner, regardless of changes in the law.

Matt Henzy works with the Massachusetts Tenants Organization, 14 Beacon Street #503, Boston, MA 02108; phone (617) 367-6628.