A new study by the National Low Income Housing Association found you have to make at least $34 per hour to be able to afford rent in Massachusetts — the third highest in the nation. The study, published Tuesday, bolsters arguments by housing advocates that drastic measures are needed to preserve low income housing.
Many economists believe nothing could be as drastic as rent control. But that’s exactly what some in the Boston area are demanding.
Jason Pramas is one of them. Standing in the rain outside his Cambridge apartment building, Pramas said he’s eager to see a return of rent control to this fast-gentrifying city.
“I pay almost 50 percent of my take-home wages now to live in a basement apartment a block away from where I once had a rent-controlled unit,” he said.
Even so, Pramas said it could be worse. His landlord charges him and his wife only half of what graduate students in the same building are paying. Pramas wrote a lead editorial in March for DigBoston, the weekly newspaper he co-owns, where he explained the need to bring back rent control, citing himself as an example.
“I'm supposed to be middle class, right? I own a newspaper. But it's a struggle to stay here,” he said.
Rep. Michael Connolly of Cambridge said this has to change, especially with record high income inequality that is statistically widening year by year.
“In our communities, we're seeing investors move in, tell all the tenants their leases won’t be renewed, or in some case doubles or even triples their rent,” Connelly said.
Connolly is co-sponsor of a bill that would permit cities and towns to set rules to protect tenants from eviction and limit how much rent they pay without having to get approval from the state legislature. The legislation would, in effect, overturn Question 9, the 1994 statewide initiative that ended rent control.
Pramas supports Connolly’s legislation. He is still angry over how the voter initiative was carried out nearly 25 years ago.
"I lived through that fight," Pramas wrote in his editorial. "That vicious, dirty fight. Where the real estate industry blanketed the Commonwealth with an ad campaign that completely misrepresented rent control to suburban communities with no direct experience with the reform."
There is disagreement among economists over the efficacy of rent control. But many argue that landlords have little incentive to make repairs or spruce up communities under rent control. Laura Keisel, a freelance writer, grew up in rent-controlled housing in Brooklyn and now lives in an affordable apartment complex in Arlington, where the waiting list is hundreds deep. She said there has to be a compromise on this contentious issue, including better protections for homeowners than the rent control policies of the 70s and 80s allowed.
“Maybe the pendulum was too far in the other direction, where they weren't able to raise the rent at all to recoup the expenses of fixing things,” said Keisel. “But I do think that there's a balance and I think if we're reasonable and cap it at a certain amount … in proportion to some needs, that it doesn't have to be as controversial.”
Opponents of rent control contend that the working class, especially people of color, do not benefit from this form of tenant protection. Some cite the extraordinary example of James Whitey Bulger on the lam in Santa Monica, California. With $800,000 hidden in the walls, Bulger paid $1,145 a month for a unit that would cost $3,000 on the open market. Closer to home, examples include a former mayor of Cambridge and a prominent judge living in rent-controlled housing until 1994. Proponents of rent control cite these examples as hyperbolic.
“Well, they are hyperbolic in that those are very unusual people to live in terms of their status. But they indicate an underlying problem,” said Skip Schloming, executive director of the Small Property Owners Association. Schloming was a major force in rolling back rent control in 1994. He spearheaded the Rent Control Prohibition Initiative, which ended rent control for most privately-owned housing units, and neutered rent control laws statewide. Schloming’s main argument then is his same argument now.
“By taking existing housing and making the landlords come down in their rent to make it affordable to the occupants has very disastrous consequences. No new housing will be built, because what builder is going to go into a city that will impose rent control on it? Even if they are explicitly exempt from rent control,” he said.
And Schloming contends that the people who need the benefits of rent control the most rarely get it.
“If you're getting low rent, you're not going to take any chance on low income people. So, who are you going to rent to? Middle class tenants that will be guaranteed to pay the rent,” he said.
But Connolly said his bill will provide incentives for landlords to rent to the poor, and points to a recently passed rent control law in Oregon as the way forward.
"What they did was put an 8 percent cap on annual rent increases. And you know, that's a perfectly fair operating return for a landlord," Connolly said. "And so, I think that there are ways of considering this that could be implemented in a way that would work."
Douglas Quattrochi agrees. He owns a triple-decker in Worcester and is executive director of the Massachusetts Landlords Association. He says if the state is going to reintroduce rent control, then the Oregon model is the best such example.
"That bill happens to be the best rent control bill I’ve ever seen," Quattrochi said. "Massachusetts Landlords members don't support rent control, but that bill really recognizes a lot of complex issues. You've got a maximum rent raise of CPI plus 7 percent. That's a really big rent increase, and in some areas that appreciate quickly, that still gives the landlord a lot of room to potentially justify improvements and capital expenditure.”
Quattrochi has offered to meet with Connolly and other housing advocates for the poor to discuss the current Massachusetts legislation and the Oregon law as possible ways to move pass the emotional blockades represented by the very term “rent control.”