YOU WANT people to know why you support Question 9. Why it's so important to you. But you're not a fancy talker. You have no clout. So how will they ever understand -- the people in Worcester and Cape Cod and Waltham -- that Question 9 is about fairness? About rights most of them take for granted?
If you could meet them, you'd tell them that you always played by the rules. Never made trouble for anybody.
You worked hard, supported your family, put the kids through school. You saved a little every week, thinking about your retirement, not wanting to be a burden on anyone.
After years of doing without, you saved up enough to make the down payment on a small apartment house. It was run-down, but you fixed it up, replaced the antique plumbing, sanded the floors, painted each unit yourself. It cost a lot, and the mortgage payments were hefty, but you'd added up the numbers again and again. Charge a reasonable rent, you figured, get tenants who pay on time, and you'll be able to cover the mortgage, keep the place in good shape, and still have enough to live on in retirement.
But you didn't count on rent control.
You made a big mistake. You bought your little building in one of the Massachusetts cities that stomp on property owners' rights. Turns out you can't charge your tenants a reasonable -- that is, a fair market -- rent. You have no say in how much rent your tenants pay. That's decided by a local bureaucracy, the Rent Control Board. You're shocked when the board sets rents so low you're not sure you can pay the mortgage.
You start to feel the squeeze. You're scared. In your old age, the time you had worked so hard to be ready for, the supports are being pulled out from underneath you.
You plead with the Rent Control Board to let you charge your tenants more; what they pay is almost 50 percent below the going rate for noncontrolled apartments. You fill out endless forms, hire a lawyer, submit reams of documentation - and get nowhere. The board forbids you to recoup what it cost to renovate the property. It faults you for spending money on "frills," such as the ceiling fan you installed in each unit. When you mutter, in frustration, that you'd be better off leaving the apartments vacant, it threatens you with fines of $500 per day if you do.
"How can this be happening?" you ask, desperate. "How can it be legal? I struggled all my life so I could buy a piece of property, and now that I finally own one, I have no rights."
Gradually you learn that the whole rent-control system is stacked. Tenants outnumber landlords 3-to-1 in this town, and political power goes where the numbers are. Tenant groups swing elections; politicians vie for their support. Some of those politicians live in rent-controlled luxury themselves.
As the months pass, your situation worsens. Retirement income? You kissed that idea goodbye long ago. You've gone back to work to make ends meet. The irony -- the bitter, choking irony -- is that your tenants make more money than you ever did. You keep hearing about how rent control is supposed to preserve affordable housing for the poor and the disadvantaged, but your tenants are all middle- and upper-class white people in their 30s and 40s.
That's no fluke, you find out. According to the rigorous analyses of demographers like MIT's Rolf Goetze, only 10 percent of rent-control tenants are elderly. People with professional, technical, and managerial jobs occupy more than 55 percent of all rent-controlled apartments. Two-thirds of the tenants enjoying reduced rents have one or more college degrees.
Oh, how pathetically naive you were, buying an apartment building in a town with rent control.
If there's anything to be grateful for, it's that you haven't suffered as much as some other owners have. Like the people in Cambridge who, because of rent control, are not allowed to live in their own condominiums. If they do, they can go to jail.
Or like Peter and Helen Petrillo. When their daughter lost her house in a fire, they invited her and her family to stay in their three-decker; the Petrillos moved into the basement. When the rent board found out, it said the three-family was now a four-family subject to rent control. It slashed the rent on the upstairs apartments to a fraction of the fair amount. It ordered them to pay "damages" to their tenants. Poor Peter, he didn't have the money. The stress crushed him. He had a heart attack and died.
You'll never forget Peter, or what rent control did to him.
With a handful of other small owners, you petition City Council for relief. To no avail. You go to court. Futile. You plead with the state Legislature. Zero. In the end, you decide to turn to the people. You spend one of the worst winters in years on street corners and in parking lots, gathering signatures to put the issue on the state ballot: Should Massachusetts, like most other states, abolish forced rent control and protect property rights?
You're only a handful of citizens, many elderly. Nobody thinks you have a chance. The tenant organizations mobilize to stop you. They challenge hundreds of your signatures; file a lawsuit to block your initiative. There are so many of them! And they say such hateful things! -- that you're greedy, that you hate the poor, that you want a mass eviction.
Somehow, against all odds, you win ballot access. The abolition of rent control is going to the voters as Question 9. If the people vote yes -- for fairness to property owners -- this nightmare will finally end. But what will you do if they vote no? What in the name of mercy will you do?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)