Rent control gone 5 years, housing crisis hits Boston poor

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 2 Nov 1999 20:52:11 -0800 (PST)


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FWD  Associated Press - AP Wire Service - Oct 31, 1999 15:36

     FIVE YEARS AFTER RENT CONTROL ABOLISHED, HOUSING WORRIES

     By MARTIN FINUCANE
     Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) _ Five years ago this month, voters in a statewide
referendum abolished rent control. Now, the area is facing a
housing crisis and activists are calling for a return to
protections for renters.

``There's an enormous crisis with rents and home prices. ... It
argues for something to be done about rent gouging,'' said Lew
Finfer, an organizer with the Greater Boston Interfaith
Organization.

Building owners, however, say that the answer is to allow the
construction of more buildings _ to create supply to meet the extra
demand.

``Right now, we still have demand running well ahead of supply.
We've got to catch up,'' said Edwin Shanahan, chief executive of
the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Voters abolished rent control with a 46 percent to 44 percent
vote in 1994. The abolition mainly affected Boston, Cambridge and
Brookline, though it also affected tenant protections in some other
communities. It was phased in over two years.

The effect of the abolition is described differently, depending
on who is asked.

Owners say there was little impact.

John Coppola, past president of the Rental Housing Association,
which has owners of 100,000 units in eastern Massachusetts as
members, said the overall impact of getting rid of rent control was
positive, with properties upgraded and made cleaner and safer.

Shanahan said ``a tremendous amount of money'' had been poured
into properties; and rent control also had the benefit of bringing
national developers to Boston.

Shanahan added that there had been little response to emergency
programs that were initially created in Boston because of fears
that rent control would hit hard.

Kathy Brown, coordinator for the Boston Tenant Coalition,
painted a gloomier picture.

``There have been wholesale displacements and evictions of
low-income people and definitely low-income tenants that are in
shelters,'' she said.

Finfer said, ``homelessness has increased markedly.''

But whatever the past effects of getting rid of rent control,
all parties now agree that the area is facing a new crisis: housing
prices spiraling upwards due to the booming economy.

Finfer said statistics indicated that 37,000 households in
Boston paid more than 50 percent of their income for rents and
there were similar kinds of numbers in other cities and towns.

As another example of a growing problem, he said that Quincy had
asked for applications in September for 25 units of affordable
housing _ and 7,000 people applied.

The activists are hoping that the Legislature will pass a bill
that will allow cities and towns to decide locally whether to enact
protections for tenants against rent increases or evictions.

``I feel very hopeful looking toward the future. Definitely,
you're seeing more activism and more awareness on the part of the
public,'' said Brown.

Charlotte Golar Richie, chief of the Department of Neighborhood
Development in Boston, said that, just before the end of rent
control, over half the residents in the city could afford the
median rent.

Today, about 38 percent of residents can afford the median rent,
so ``you're seeing a sort of a slide,'' she said.

``What we're concerned about is that the city is in danger of
becoming a city where you only have very wealthy people or very
poor people,'' she said.

To combat that possibility, Mayor Thomas Menino has promised to
take a number of steps, she said, including building or encouraging
the construction of 2,000 units of housing this year, many of which
would be affordable.

The mayor also wants to sell an old city building, possibly
raising $10 million for housing, she said. And he supports a
proposal to provide protections for people faced with condominium
conversions.

``Some real estate folks say let the free market respond,'' she
said. ``I can't just sit there and hope that the free market solves
this one, while they're being priced out of their apartments.''

Shanahan, the real estate industry official, however, said
sometimes people just have to move to find cheaper housing.

``There are people who appear to believe they have a right to
live in any neighborhood they want,'' he said.

``You know what? Not everybody can afford living next to Beacon
Hill. ... It's unfortunate, but it's reality,'' he said.

AP-ES-10-31-99 1636EST
Received  Id AP99304EF2B7A21 on Nov 01 1999 23:06

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