LOCAL HOUSING activists, with Mayor Tom Meninoís blessing, have embarked on a campaign to bring rent control back to Boston.
This is a bad idea.
Rent control came to Massachusetts in the late 1960s, when, during a time of raging inflation, housing prices skyrocketed. The idea of capping the rent property owners could charge was an appealing solution to the housing crisis, and Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Lynn, and Brookline all adopted local versions of rent control. In the 1970s, Somerville and Lynn abandoned the practice, while Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge maintained some variation of rent control until voters banned the practice via a 1994 statewide ballot question.
We all know what happened next. Property owners, particularly in Cambridge, doubled, tripled, and in some cases quadrupled the rent tenants had previously paid. Surrounding communities were flooded with tenants squeezed out of Cambridge, and suddenly communities like Somerville, Chelsea, and Roxbury became desirable places to live. Today, if youíre looking to find a clean, two-bedroom apartment for less than $1000 per month, youíll have a hard time finding it within Greater Boston, much less Boston proper.
But this crisis canít be pinned solely on the demise of rent control. Nor is the problem unique to Greater Boston. The mid-to-late 1990s, during which vacancy rates in Boston dropped to the low single digits and rents jumped into the high four digits, were a time of unprecedented prosperity not just for the region, but for the country. What happened in Boston also happened in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. We understandably see the housing crisis in local terms, but itís a national problem deserving of a national response.
Last month, the US Conference of Mayors, headed by Menino, called on Congress to deal with the crisis by creating an affordable-housing trust fund. "The nationís mayors applaud President Bushís announcement ... that he will seek to expand homeownership," Menino said, in a carefully crafted statement from the mayorsí group. "We hope his announcement is only the first step in a national effort to address the nationís workforce housing crisis."
Also last month, the Millennial Housing Commission, a bipartisan group created by Congress to study the nationís housing problem and offer solutions, released its report. Its conclusions were stark. "Federal support for the housing sector has been insufficient to cover growing needs," its executive summary read, in part. "In 1999 one in four ó almost 28 million ó American households reported spending more on housing than the federal government considers affordable and appropriate (more than 30 percent of income). Even working full-time no longer guarantees escape from several housing-affordability problems."
But rent control ó an idea the Phoenix supported in 1994, when it editorialized against the ballot question that ended the practice ó is not the answer. The burden of helping our poor-, lower-, and middle-income residents find affordable housing should not be placed on property owners. Itís unfair. (Though itís no doubt tempting to punish those whoíve used this latest crisis to engage in price gouging.) More important, though, itís bad policy.
One of the tragic legacies of rent control in Massachusetts can be seen in Cambridge, where much of the housing stock was converted to condominiums in order to circumvent rent-control laws. We also saw sickening abuses of the system ó again, mostly in Cambridge ó where the cityís former mayor and other luminaries lived in rent-controlled apartments. Furthermore, it was nearly impossible to actually find a rent-controlled apartment, since few people who had them ever moved. And when they did, more often than not, friends and relatives got first dibs on the vacant unit. As hard as it is to find a decent place to rent today, itís easier than it was formerly to find a rent-controlled unit.
Of course, itís easy to forget all that in the heat of todayís crisis. But our housing advocates should focus their energies not on bringing back a broken-down policy, but on holding our state and federal governments accountable. Lew Finfer, of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, points out that since 1990, the stateís spending on housing has dropped from $220 million to $120 million. "Affordable housing is a very low priority in state government, and itís been cut substantially," Finfer says.
As for the federal governmentís commitment to the issue, the Millennial Commission says it best: "Federal support for the housing sector has been insufficient." We need better ideas, some of which can be found in the Millennial Housing Commission Report (read it online at http://www.mhc.gov/). These include:
ē New homeownership tax credits.
ē Federal subsidies for the production of housing for extremely low-income families.
ē The creation over 10 years of permanent housing for the chronically homeless.
This is what we should be talking about with our politicians at the local, state, and federal levels. Not rent control.
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