1994 is a significant year in the history of the long and difficult struggle for tenant rights in Massachusetts. That year, tenants suffered a shattering blow from which they have yet to recover: rent control was abolished in a statewide referendum.
As an urban housing policy, rent control was like a Maginot Line in the defense of tenant rights. It guaranteed tenants fair rents in a highly speculative housing market. It provided a mechanism for reasonable arbitration of disputes with landlords. It prevented untrammeled condominium conversions. It created a level playing field for the interplay of tenant-landlord relations. And, regrettably, it also gave tenants a false sense of security and confidence.
While rent control was popular among tenants, the real estate industry was implacably hostile to it. Ever since its inception, landlords maintained that it interfered with their property rights and their right to earn a profit in the housing market. They lobbied unsuccessfully for the repeal of local ordinances. They financed campaigns and candidates to oppose rent control. On more than one occasion they resorted to questionable and extra-legal stratagems to obstruct the administration of rent control policies in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge, the three cities in the state with rent control ordinances, such as renting apartments with additional fees and padded costs.
Finding these frontal assaults on rent control thwarted, the real estate industry struck upon a novel stratagem. It would bypass local politics and attack rent control at the state level though a challenge to the Home Rule provision of the Massachusetts state constitution.
Rent control was a local option. Each town and city in the Commonwealth had the right to adopt it if local circumstances warranted such a measure to protect its affordable housing stock. This was known as Home Rule or Local Democracy as practiced in Massachusetts.
But the real estate industry's legal advisors argued before the state Supreme Judicial Court that Home Rule was not a constitutional right but a grant to the towns and cities from the state. If a community abused the privilege, then the state and its voters not only had the power but an obligation to revoke it though a state referendum. According to this line of reasoning, landlords maintained, the communities of Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge, where 40% of the state's tenants lived, had taken unfair advantage of Home Rule. Rent control in these localities frustrated the landlords' opportunities to profit from a tight and lucrative housing market.
The court ruled in favor of the real estate industry, setting the stage for an unprecedented electoral contest. The rule provided the breach the landlords had been seeking. With fierce intensity, the real estate industry invested and spent $1.5 million in its campaign to abolish rent control. It established a campaign headquarters along Rt. 128 in the conservative, wealthy suburbs west of Boston. It financed an out-of-state firm to collect signatures to place Question 9 on the ballot, paying signature gatherers a dollar for each signature. It commissioned right-wing academicians to produce studies to discredit the efficacy of rent control. It brought in professional political consultants to manage the campaign. Moreover, it contracted expensive media consultants to recast its image.
No longer the real estate industry but now a coalition of "aggrieved" and "oppressed" small property homeowners, the anti-rent control campaign borrowed a page from former President Reagan's anti-government rhetoric. Campaign literature featured the slogan "Get Government Out" slashed across a single-family house. It also carried woe-begone stories about how hard-working families had been brought to the brink of financial ruin because of rent control. And it singled out Cambridge as particularly malevolent in the administration of rent control.
Conservative suburbs and rural communities had always looked upon Cambridge as a "strange" place. Media pundits derisively referred to it as "The People's Republic," a counter-cultural enclave where everything and anything was allowed to happen as long as it was perceived as being leftist and hostile to American middle class values. It was not uncommon for suburbanites to visit Harvard Square just to observe the "peculiar goings-on" at the center of town.
Now, in the heat of an electoral campaign, that singularity became a liability. Through a campaign of innuendo and distortion, the real estate industry and its apologists depicted Cambridge as a city out of control, like an "infection that may spread." For evidence of this threat, the landlords' media strategists suggested, one only had to look at its mayor. He was black. He was gay. He was Harvard-educated. He was a lawyer. He was a liberal. And he lived in a $400-a-month rent-controlled apartment. Cambridge was not only abusing Home Rule; it was also morally bankrupt.
These unrelenting attacks left the tenant rights movement stunned and reeling. In the more than two decades of rent control, nothing compared to this. From the tenant perspective, the system was working; it was protecting the vulnerable. Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge had repeatedly elected pro-rent control officials. But now, the once-popular measure was the object of odious venom. A July 1994 poll indicated that rent control would be defeated by a 40-point margin. Despair spread among the ranks of tenants.
To overcome this very discouraging situation, tenant activists from the rent-controlled communities decided to wage a grassroots campaign. They held rallies and demonstrations. An alert went out to all tenant groups in the state. These were important and critical steps in mobilizing the tenant base. It was also determined that, regardless of what happened statewide, Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge had to turn out a substantial pro-rent control vote. This would re-affirm those communities' commitment to maintaining affordable housing stock, to protecting tenant rights, and to preserving Home Rule.
Second, tenant activists began fanning out across the state with two goals. One was to forge alliances with other progressive groups. Out of this effort came an historic alliance between the labor and tenant rights movement. The other goal was to enlist the support of those communities which also faced possible threats to their Home Rule rights and regulatory policies. Out of this effort came the sympathetic support from small, rural western communities concerned about corporate intrusion.
The third strategy was to appeal to the conscience of the Massachusetts voter. Pointing out that Questions 9 was an irresponsible power grab by greedy landlords, tenant activists stressed the irreparable harm that would result from abolition. They pointed out that the elderly, living on fixed incomes, occupying the majority of rent-controlled apartments, would be hard hit.
By the end of October the tenant strategies seemed to be working. Polling data indicated that the election was too close to call. What was a near rout a few months ago was now rebounding. A cautious optimism replaced the despair. Tenants were openly talking about the possibility that a familiar Biblical story might repeat itself in their lifetime: David might once again defeat Goliath.
But for all their heroic efforts, the tenant rights movement was not able to close one significant gap. The real estate industry was outspending it ten to one. Tenants were only able to raise slightly more than $100,000 to save rent control. The grassroots campaign could not overcome the landlords' media advantage. Rent control received solid support from Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge. Nonetheless, the real estate industry eked out a razor-thin victory of 54,000 votes out of two million ballots cast. Goliath mugged David.
Landlords could hardly contain their excitement. They drove caravans through tenant communities boasting of their success and promising to turn the tables on the tenants. Their spin doctors proclaimed a questionable mandate not only to end rent control but to re-examine all of the laws affecting tenant-landlord relations. Working with their friends in the Governor's office and in the state legislature, real estate lobbyists pushed through legislation to consolidate the landlords' new hegemony.
Tenants were angry and apprehensive. Angry because, collectively, corporate America had singled them out for economic exploitation. Rents were certainly going to rise. Apprehensive because, individually, their homes and neighborhoods were at stake. Lifelong community ties surely were going to come unraveled.
Few observers could recall a time when landlord-tenant relations were so tense. Public meetings turned into shouting matches. The grounds of the Cambridge City Hall were the scene of a fist fight between tenants and landlords. Unsubstantiated rumors of arson-related fires spread through the city. For a moment, it seemed as though open class warfare was going to break out.
Like the aftershocks of an earthquake, the tenant rights movement suffered another tremor when the political leadership of Cambridge capitulated to the real estate interests. Landlords demanded and got unconditional surrender. The 6-3 pro-rent control majority on the city council dissolved and that body's will to fight and to defend its citizens collapsed.
For tenants, the painful dawn of a new reality became all too apparent at a tense meeting. A city councilor, who had been elected the previous year with strong tenant support, urged tenants to accept their defeat. He exclaimed, "You lost!" But, from the back of the room, the barely audible voice of a woman in her 80s serenely retorted, "We have been through this before."
1994 ended with the tenant rights movement shattered into several factions, each pursuing new efforts to improve the lives of tenants. Two perspectives have come to dominate the current thinking among activists.
In arguments eerily reminiscent of the Washington-DuBois controversy over the future of African-Americans' rights a century ago, the tenant rights movement has an accommodationist wing and a protest wing. The accommodationist, or Washington, wing emphasizes tenant self-help through support of efforts and programs to assist tenants to become homeowners. This perspective enjoys the backing of the real estate industry and philanthropic agencies. As noble as this goal is, critics note, it fails to address the harsh reality that most urban tenants will remain urban tenants and that home ownership opportunities exist for only a privileged few.
In contrast, the protest, or DuBois, wing asserts that any effort to improve tenants' lives is doomed to failure as long as their basic rights in democracy are compromised in a speculative housing market. Since the abolition of rent control, they point out, rents have risen anywhere between 50-200%. Arbitrary evictions have increased; building and housing inspections have declined; condominiums have replaced tenements. Tenants are treated as though they are second class citizens with property having more rights in a democracy than they do.
It remains to be seen which perspective will succeed in reviving the tenant rights movement.
Lester Lee, chair of the Tenant Rights Study Group (617/492-1894) teaches history at Wheelock College.
This article from New England *Peacework* #264, June 96. (AFSC, 2161 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA; Pat Farren & Patricia Watson, editors, 617/661-6130 or fax:1-617-354-2832
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