The Joint Housing Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature recently held a virtual hearing on House Bill H.1378, a proposal to grant cities and towns the right to establish rent control. As a person who lived in a rent control apartment, then owned rent-controlled apartments, and now owns unregulated apartments, I have broad experience of the issue. This series explores the potential, and pitfalls, of rent-control as a mechanism to address our housing supply and affordability crisis.
Link to Part One—Legal History
Rent Control and Me
My first experience with rent control came quick upon getting engaged. Time for me and my fiancé to move out of our respective group houses into a place of our own. Our budget was tight, apartments scarce. In July of 1979 we found a 425 square foot one bedroom on Mass Ave between Central Square and Harvard. Four tiny windows facing a blank wall. A measly abode in an excellent location for $224 per month. We signed a September first lease, confident that love would bind in such tight quarters. In the last week of August we received a notice from the Rent Control Board: the rent on our apartment was reset to $277. What the $#@**%. A 24% increase! So much for rent control, like, controlling our rent. We tightened our belt and winced every month as we wrote out the check.
Years passed, and the traditional single-family house always dangled beyond our financial grasp. We moved to Oklahoma City and purchased a two-family house in a place where no one’d ever heard of rent control. Moved back east in 1986 and purchased a two-family in Somerville, where rent control had already been terminated. By 1992, we had two children and decided to relocate along the Route 2 corridor: Lexington, Arlington, Belmont or Cambridge. I’m a city guy, but Cambridge was a long shot: houses were either super experience or, if under rent control, in shambles. Lucky us! We come upon an albatross: an asymmetrical four family with a large three-story unit attached to three flats. The sellers (SPOA activists) had legally subdivided the place down the party wall, but the communicating porches and cross-doors defied the simple line drawn on the paper deed. Our real estate agent proved a savvy negotiator, and we flipped from being out-priced seekers to mortgaged owners of a 5,000 square foot behemoth. Still, everyone wrinkled their brow at our stupidity: you bought a house under rent control?
The illogic of the system became immediately apparent. The smallest apartment, an attic studio, had the highest allowable rent, by a wide margin. The appraiser thoroughly investigated the side we would inhabit, but declined to even walk inside the rent control side. He explained, “The value of a rent control property is established by rents set by the Board; the actual condition is irrelevant.”
Within a week of closing, I received notice to appear before the Rent Control Board. I arrived in dress shirt and tie, clueless to the agenda. I was greeted as the enemy, with full bore skepticism and derision. “Why did this building get legally subdivided?” “How are you trying to circumvent rent control?” I knew that the rent control equation was a zero-sum game: the previous owner had subdivided a four-family building, in which one unit was owner occupied and three under rent control, into two legally separate properties. As the new owner of both properties, we would live in the ‘single family’ while the ‘three family’ would remain under rent control, since it was not owner occupied. The legal description of the property had changed; the de facto rent control status had not. This reality did not stop the Board from grilling me from every angle, convinced I was up to no good. I remained uncharacteristically calm; while they fumed.
The following summer my attic-studio tenant moved out. Within an hour of posting notice, I had three applicants. One was a single mother with a young child. The second, a single woman who planned to run an at-home day care out of the apartment, The third was a medical resident at Children’s Hospital. Since rent control did not demand a means test or other social criteria, I did what any conscientious landlord would do: rented to the person with the highest and most secure income. The medical resident proved to be an excellent tenant.
In the run-up to the 1994 state ballot initiative that ended rent control, local media was ripe with pro-rent control articles. One morning, the front page of the Cambridge Chronicle featured an article about the woes of a tenant who claimed “I will not be able to afford my apartment if rent control is eliminated.” The quote stuck in my throat. The subject of the article was my own tenant and no one— from the Chronicle or anywhere else—had asked me, her landlord, what her uncontrolled rent might be. I called the Chronicle, accused them of pandering, and lambasted their shoddy reporting. The following week, the cover page story featured me, explaining how small landlords valued continuity and would not necessarily toss out every tenant in the city.
For the last thirty years I’ve managed the three apartments attached to my own house. I am attentive and fair in the rents I charge and maintenance I provide. So far, I’ve only had one tenant to whom I have not offered an extended lease: the woman from the Chronicle article. I am disinclined to be generous toward people who malign me, even if indirectly.
My three apartments are safe and sanitary, yet hardly fancy. The rents I charge fall within the guidelines of HUD’s Section 8 rental assistance program. I could sign on for the program and be guaranteed tenants and rent. But I do not. I know how arbitrary HUD guidelines can be from my days designing affordable housing, and rumors surrounding the hassle of annual property inspections keep me from welcoming the housing authority into my 120-year-old building.
I am fully aware of the inconsistency in my behavior. I believe everyone should be entitled to basic housing, and I could provide truly affordable housing to at least a few people. Yet I steer clear of inviting government busyness into my affairs, and choose to rent to folks whose decent incomes don’t require subsidy.
My personal experience with rent control reflects a program that proclaims a set of benefits far different than what it delivers. If the state once again passes enabling legislation to allow rent control in Massachusetts, and if the City of Cambridge adopts it, of course I will comply. But we’ve already lived through one generation of rent control, and it failed to deliver affordable housing to those in need. I wonder: can rent control be structured to better align with our objectives, or are there are better ways to achieve stable housing for everyone?
Next Up: Can Rent Control Help to Address our Housing Crisis?