First of two columns
Remember the housing crisis that exploded in Boston after voters approved Question 9 and abolished rent control in Massachusetts? Remember the tidal wave of evictions, the masses of poor senior citizens kicked out of their homes? Remember how landlords by the thousands took revenge on their formerly rent-controlled tenants, jacking their rents sky-high, then hauling them into court when they couldn't pay?
You don't remember? Of course you don't. It never happened. There was no crisis. There was only a barrage of fearmongering by tenant activists (and the politicians who toady to them), a shameless campaign to terrify voters -- especially older ones -- into opposing Question 9.
"If thousands of landlords suddenly jack rent up to market rates," City Councilor Thomas Keane wailed a few months before the 1994 election, "thousands of people could suddenly be out on the street."
At least he said "if." Most rent-control extremists, like Oscar Farmer of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, simply asserted over and over that if rent control ended, disaster would follow:
"Question 9 . . . would result in huge rent increases followed by massive evictions in rent-controlled property as of Jan. 1, 1995," Farmer swore in August 1994. "Thousands of young families, working families and elderly face homelessness.... The devastating effects of Question 9 on the elderly are of special concern.... Question 9 would uproot thousands ... create a housing crisis unparalleled in the Boston area ... no place for displaced elderly tenants to go ... evictions would overload the welfare system, the court system, and housing services."
Rubbish, all of it.
In Boston, 22,000 apartments were decontrolled with no dire consequences. Just how unnecessary rent control was soon became even clearer. To ensure that no one would be hurt by a sudden jump to market rates, the Legislature extended rent control for tenants earning as much as 60 percent of the median income -- $22,320 for a single person. For tenants older than 61 or disabled, the means test allowed incomes of up to $28,150 -- 80 percent of the median. Despite such generous terms, fewer than 900 rent-control tenants -- out of more than 22,000 -- qualified for the extension.
In other words, rent control in Boston (as in Brookline and Cambridge) turned out to be exactly what landlords had been calling it all along: a subsidy for middle- and upper-class tenants in their prime earning years. All the talk about the typical rent-control tenant being a destitute 74-year-old widow was propaganda, camouflage for the greed of tenants who were perfectly capable of paying a fair rent for their housing. The housing "emergency" invoked when rent control began, if ever there was one, had long since vanished.
At the end of 1996, the last vestiges of rent control in Massachusetts will disappear. There are maybe 750 older tenants in Boston still covered by the temporary extension. The odds of their being evicted when rent control expires is, in round numbers, zero. Most landlords (many of whom are far from young themselves) would never dream of whacking an elderly tenant with a steep rent hike. At least one large property-management company, Forest Properties Inc., has already assured its older residents that they will never have to leave the buildings they live in, and that their rent will always stay low.
As an added safeguard, Boston's main landlord group, the Rental Housing Association, has put aside 168 apartments for any senior citizens displaced when rent control ends. Property owners of more modest means, like David Parker of the South End, have made similar offers. So far, not one tenant has applied for help. It is 18 months since Question 9 was approved. Rent control is more than 95 percent phased out. There has been no crisis, no emergency, no upheaval, no explosion of evictions.
And yet, insanely, the fearmongering goes on.
The Boston Tenant Coalition continues to shriek that thousands of poor seniors are on the verge of eviction. Barbara Burnham of the Fenway Community Development Corp. claims that "400 to 500" elderly tenants in her neighborhood alone will lose their homes at the end of the year. "These are drastic times," Mayor Menino announces. "I'm not one to cry wolf but we're looking at a housing crisis ... and it's time for government to intervene."
Last week, jumping through Menino's hoop, 10 trained seals on the Boston City Council voted to reimpose rent control across Boston. If their so-called "just cause" bill is approved by the Legislature, it would once again be bureaucrats -- not the free market -- who decide how much rent a tenant ought to pay. Small property owners would once again find themselves punished for having invested in Boston. Once again, a phony crisis would be trumped up as an excuse to trample the rights of the very people who create stability and value in a city's neighborhoods.
Rent control is destructive, costly, and unfair. In the words of Senator John Kerry, "it runs down cities and costs millions." Thanks to Question 9, rent control is dead and nearly buried. To dig it up now would be stupidity of the highest order.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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