A putative housing crisis, you may recall, was one of the hot issues in the 1999 City Council election. Nevertheless, in January, the newly elected Council - following a progression of thought fathomable only by a certain type of Cambridge liberal - voted 7-2 to ban new residential construction in a large part of the city. Thanks to this law, known as the Larkin petition, the residents of East Cambridge, Area 4 and Wellington-Harrington, will be spared a plague of new houses, apartments, and condominiums.
There are, of course, two sides to the housing market equation. The council couldn't do much about demand. People will want places to live, whether or not liberal Democrat politicians approve. City Council, accordingly, focused on attacking the supply.
But such government interdiction efforts seldom work as promised. Our City Council's war on new housing likely will, as the government's war on drugs, have unintended effects. Just as bootleggers responded to national prohibition by using the smaller, easily concealed hip flask, developers will find a way to give the people what they want, covertly if need be. Indeed, according to published reports, Councilor Kathy Born and others have expressed concerns that builders will evade the housing ban by splitting large projects into smaller pieces exempt from the ban.
While the city blocks the construction of new housing, the existing stock of rental housing continues to shrink. Condemned and destroyed after non-paying tenants deny funds needed for maintenance, or simply removed from the market by owners who have experienced our punishing rental housing laws, units exit the market. With no rent escrowing law to protect owners and honest tenants, the dishonest make it harder for all. Yet, when asked in 1999 to endorse a rent escrowing bill being considered by the state legislature, not one Cambridge City Councilor voted in favor.
For a quarter of a century the chief weapon in the war on privately-owned housing was rent control. Mandatory below-cost rents assured that, over time, a minor perceived housing shortage could, by government action, be escalated into a major housing crisis. Finally, a popular ballot initiative overthrew the horror of government control of the rental market. But the people who gave us rent control stand ready to restore their failed system of government micro-management of rental property. Fortunately, their effort to bring back rent control through a local ballot question died when organizers failed even to get enough signatures to place it on the ballot.
Perhaps Cambridge is changing. The City Council's most vocal opponent of rent control - Anthony Galluccio - was the choice for mayor by his fellow councilors. There is even more good news for property owners and prospective owners. The Small Property Owners Association, the Cambridge-based organization that beat back rent control in 1994, reported an increase in local membership after a new condo conversion law was proposed in Cambridge. At a recent SPOA meeting, it was announced that at least four city councilors were pledged to vote against the condo ordinance.
This radical proposal aims to stamp out the most affordable form of home ownership -condominiums. It would place under rent control any building with three or more apartments (regardless of owner occupancy). The scheme is even more extreme than the old rent control law which, at least, exempted owner-occupied buildings of three or fewer units and exempted new construction. To become law, the condo conversion proposal needs the votes of two-thirds of the council. With four councilors opposed, it appears blocked.
There was a time, not long ago, when city councilors fell over each other to appease a small group of loud tenant activists.Now, support for private property and the free market is gaining.
"The mood in this city is shifting to no longer tolerate this kind of attack on housing," said Skip Schloming, SPOA newsletter editor. Are we perhaps seeing the beginning of the end of the war on privately owned housing? Some signs are promising, but property owners must be on guard and continue to press our elected officials to do the right thing.