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Rent control gets a second look in Cambridge

(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File)

CAMBRIDGE — A growing debate over rent control in Massachusetts has people in Cambridge harkening back to an era when apartment-living in this city was quite different: the 1990s.

Specifically, they’re revisiting 1994, the year Massachusetts voters narrowly outlawed restrictions on what landlords could charge tenants. Today, amid a housing crunch that grips much of Greater Boston, some lawmakers are saying it may be time to reconsider that decision.

While Boston and Brookline also had rent control programs in 1994, Cambridge’s was by far the most stringent. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s housing stock was under a rental cap, and a powerful board held sway over what landlords could demand for an apartment. In the quarter-century since the law was abolished, the Cambridge housing market has soared, powered in part by the emergence of Kendall Square as one of the world’s top biotechnology hubs.

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“Two things transformed Cambridge,” said Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association. “The advent of Kendall and the demise of rent control.”

Jillson would know. In the 1990s, she and her husband were landlords. They owned a four-family building off Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge. They knew the building was under rent control when they bought it but didn’t really understand what that meant in terms of paying for upkeep, or their ability to live in one of the units. (They couldn’t, at least not without a long fight to evict a tenant.)

“I developed an ulcer,” Jillson said. “Then I heard about SPOA.”

SPOA — the Small Property Owners Association — was a landlords group that pushed back against rent control in Cambridge. Within a few years, with Jillson as cochairwoman, it launched an initiative petition to ban rent control in all of Massachusetts, betting a statewide vote would be easier to win than battles in the three municipalities where the edict was in place and popular with renters.

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The group pointed out that many people living in rent-controlled apartments in Cambridge were fairly well-off. They included business executives, judges, and even the mayor.

SPOA also argued that two of the state’s biggest cities were intentionally depressing their own tax base by restricting rent increases, and thus received more state aid than they otherwise would have. In the end, rent control opponents narrowly prevailed.

It took time for the impact to be felt, said Bill Cavellini, then a tenant advocate in Cambridge. But as apartments turned over, rents went up, and the number of homes that lower-income renters could afford dwindled. Some landlords kept their rents low, Cavellini said, and some renters found their way into public housing or other affordable units. But he estimates that within a decade half of the people he worked with in tenant groups had left Cambridge. Cavellini moved to more affordable Somerville in 2004.

“It was pretty disastrous,” he said. “As landlords began to realize they didn’t have to answer to anybody anymore, a lot of them took advantage of it, and people lost their homes.”

Property owners, however, made out well.

A study by three economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014 found that ending rent control boosted the value of residential real estate in Cambridge by about $2 billion over a decade, even after accounting for broader growth in the city’s economy and housing market. Cambridge’s tax base grew. Investment rose and values climbed, not just for formerly rent-controlled buildings but also their neighbors.

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That study has become a key plank in the economic arguments made by critics of rent control, though its authors carefully avoided taking a position on the issue. In a recent interview, coauthor Christopher Palmer, who teaches at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, said it’s clear that rent control has both costs and benefits, depending on your perspective.

“At MIT, we try to keep our lab coats on, to be dispassionate,” he said. “We’re skeptical that rent control is the most effective housing policy, but also sensitive to where its populist appeal comes from.”

That appeal has gained momentum in recent years as rents relentlessly outpace incomes and new development spreads to more formerly blue-collar parts of the region. Lower-income renters are increasingly worried that they will be forced out of their homes by landlords. Rent control, say tenants and their advocates, might be a way to help people stay put.

There are at least two bills on Beacon Hill — one filed, the other expected to be filed soon — that would effectively undo that 1994 initiative and allow cities and towns to again impose rent control.

The prognosis for the legislation is unclear. Governor Charlie Baker has signaled his opposition to rent control, but supporters say it and other tenant protections should be part of the conversation in any broader housing legislation, including measures Baker wants that would ease zoning changes.

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Should they succeed, the debate would be thrown back to cities and towns, many of which — like Cambridge — have changed dramatically since rent control ended.

Tim Toomey, the only current Cambridge City Council member who was on the board in 1994, lives just north of Kendall Square, in what was once a working-class neighborhood that has increasingly become home to biotech and tech workers who earn enough to pay $2,500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

“There’s a lot of very young professionals who do quite well, it appears,” Toomey said. “The demographics have changed a lot.”

Calls for help from lower-income tenants facing steep rent hikes and eviction are an “almost daily” occurrence for city staff, said Toomey. But without stronger protections for tenants, he said, there’s only so much they can do. Toomey supported rent control in the 1990s and proposed tweaks to the law in an attempt to head off the statewide vote that killed it. But Toomey said he is not sure its time has come again.

“Cambridge has just changed so much,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that question.”


Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.