An Historic Vote
Cambridge voters slam rent control
A landslide 61.4% of voters said “NO”
On November 4, 2003, Cambridge citizens voted 61% to 39% against a ballot question that aimed to reinstate rent control locally, a landslide defeat in this famously liberal city. The vote was 12,467 against and 7, 832 in favor of the ballot question. The Small Property Owners Association lead this successful campaign to defeat rent control.
The Small Property Owners Association was the chief architect of the campaign that persuaded over 61% of Cambridge voters to say “NO” to a return of rent control. This decisive popular vote was a sea change for this ultra-liberal city that had been forced by the 1994 statewide referendum known as Question 9 to give up a politically entrenched but divisive rent control system that had endured for 25 years as one of the most stringent systems in the country. SPOA also spearheaded Question 9.
Last February, activists first announced their petition signature drive to reinstate rent control starting with a local ballot referendum. From the beginning, SPOA knew it was important for the referendum to fail in a popular vote rejecting it, not by a mere legal technicality nor by higher authorities rejecting it.
During the campaign, others often pointed out that the Eviction Free Zone’s proposal had no chance of success anyway because (1) the Legislature would never pass it, (2) the Governor would never sign it, and (3) even a majority of Cambridge voters saying “yes” to rent control would never reach the legally required number of “yes” votes – 33% of all registered voters – to make the referendum binding and require the Cambridge City Council to send the voter-approved home-rule petition to the Legislature.
But to us, all this no-chance-of-success talk was dangerous thinking. A popular majority vote in favor of rent control, even if technically non-binding, would be bad. It would be pressure on the City Council to send a rent control petition up to the State Legislature anyway. We would then be dependent on the Legislature to stop it or, worse yet, on a Republican governor to veto it. Worst of all, a popular majority vote in favor of rent control could mobilize a new tenant movement that would keep the rent control pressure up for many years to come. That was the real goal of the activists, and SPOA aimed to stop it.
Clearly, we had much to lose in this referendum, but also much to gain. We knew that a popular vote against rent control would be one more nail in the coffin of rent control. As Cambridge political pundit Robert Winters remarked after the vote: “This lopsided defeat probably marks the permanent end of rent control as an issue in Cambridge.”
A quiet landslide victory
After what everyone called a very quiet campaign season for both the rent control ballot question and a slew of City Council candidates, with low voter turnout expected, Cambridge voters turned out in larger-than-expected numbers and said a resounding “NO” to rent control: 61.4% voted “no,” 38.6% voted “yes.” The high turnout and landslide vote reflected not tenants, but the many homeowners who came out to vote.
The campaign was quiet in part, we believe, because tenants in general do not care much about rent control anymore, and because activists did almost nothing to awaken tenants to their cause. But just as important, the campaign was quiet because SPOA did an intensive “stealth” campaign directed almost exclusively at owners, using direct mailings and phone calling.
A direct-mail campaign
The tenant activists’ message was simple (and naïve): Get cheap rents because landlords are rich and greedy. Our campaign had to be intense because our message was much more complicated: Rent control will trap all Cambridge homeowners in specific ways – all hidden in the rent control proposal’s fine print. Rent control will also hurt the city generally – as virtually all economists agree – by forcing housing deterioration, thereby reducing the city’s tax base, thereby forcing cuts in city services. Higher property taxes on some would not be enough to offset the property tax loss on drastically devalued rent-controlled housing. We had to get this complicated message through to many who considered themselves totally unaffected by rent control.
To convey our message, SPOA, under the banner of the Cambridge Homeowners Coalition, a ballot question committee, sent out 16 different mailings to various segments of Cambridge voters in the two months before the November 4 vote. The critical set of mailings was a four-page letter tailored and targeted to each class of homeowners – single-family, condominium, two-family, three-family, and four-unit and larger owners – that both summarized and detailed exactly how rent control would hurt each owner group. If they did not trust our summary of the outrageous ways rent control might affect them, we quoted those portions of the petition’s fine print that applied just to them. So important was this exact-impact message that we decided to send these same mailings twice, except we changed the envelope cover messages.
As these mailings hit Cambridge homeowners twice in a row, several dozens of volunteers came to campaign headquarters in our rented office space in Cambridge’s Central Square and made hundreds upon hundreds of “persuasion” phone calls to them, telling them of rent control’s specific impact, getting them to read the mailed literature, getting them to talk to their family and neighbors and “spread the word.”
With the aid of hired campaign consultants and one early round of paid professional phone calling, we were able to quickly identify “yes,” “no,” and “undecided” homeowners and focus our volunteer phone calling on the “undecided” ones. We soon knew that, after those critical mailings, most undecided homeowners were changing their minds in the direction of voting “no.” For example, toward the end of the campaign, one volunteer got 31 out of 44 undecided single-family homeowners (the hardest group to convince) to say “no,” while 10 remained undecided and only 3 said “yes.”
Near the campaign’s end, we launched a succession of mailings, first targeting the sizable but hard-to-convince condo and single-family homeowners and then targeting all homeowners with a general message on rent control’s harsh impact on the city’s tax base.< In a last-minute surprise, the usually very liberal Cambridge Chronicle, the oldest of Cambridge’s weekly newspapers, editorialized against rent control and urged voters to vote “no.” Afraid the many voters had not seen the editorial, we rapidly mailed a post card quoting the Chronicle’s surprise shift against rent control Finally, on Election Day, we did two rounds of paid phone calling that targeted “no” and “undecided” voters in precincts we had identified as strongly inclined to vote “no.” The phone callers reminded them to vote and to vote “no.” Trembling on election night So we had done everything we could think of. We hired professional election consultants who know how to “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV). We paid professional phone-callers at the start of the campaign to rapidly identify those voters on our side. Night after night at our headquarters, we focused our SPOA volunteers on calling the undecided voters to get them on our side, to get them to talk to their neighbors and build up a word-of-mouth network. We paid professional phone-callers again at the end of the campaign to call voters to get them to vote. And costliest of all, throughout the campaign we sent out mailing after mailing – sixteen in all – to each and every group of owners, driving home our message. Everything seemed favorable, and the political gossip said we had bagged a victory. Nevertheless, on election night, with fear in our hearts at the thought that we might lose, we gathered at our customary meeting place, the VFW Hall in West Cambridge, and waited anxiously for the outcome. We still did not know for sure we would win in this once-stronghold of pro-rent-control activism. If we did win, we did not know by how much a margin we might win. Based on the 1994 statewide referendum, we could have expected only a slim margin of victory, especially considering we were now fighting in the heart of the most liberal city in the state. Then the landslide vote came in – 61% said “no” to rent control, just 38% said “yes.” Cheers filled the room. And to all of us volunteers, an almost unbelievable victory had been achieved. Cambridge had been turned around on the issue of rent control. Where it once seemed an entrenched system that the city would never vote out, now the city had voted overwhelmingly against any sort of return of rent control. The ripple effect would also likely be great. Recent rumblings in Boston suggested activists wanted to try once again to get a rent control initiative going in Boston, despite the Boston City Council vote rejecting it the year before (November 2002). This new Boston effort now might be effectively squashed by this usually strong Cambridge vote against rent control. No grassroots This campaign victory has some important lessons. The landslide outcome in our favor showed, on the one hand, wide tenant apathy about rent control and, on the other hand, deep homeowner concern about bringing rent control back. The tenant activists must have expected that, once they got their rent control question on the ballot, a blazing fire of support among tenants would be automatically ignited. That expected tenant surge of support never happened. And their bring-back-rent-control campaign was itself very limited and fragmentary – a few handouts in Central Square, a letter delivered here and there, a tag-along effort with one zero-chance Council candidate, and – contrary to our expectations – not even a last-minute “big-bang” mailing or literature drop or media blitz. One tenant activist said they spent only $4,000. Their free lawyers from Cambridge-Somerville Legal Services had drafted the referendum petition and defended them when hundreds of their petition signatures were challenged. But legal back-up does not create the grassroots movement that is needed to win an election. As we suspected, the activists behind this rent control referendum were a small fringe group of radicals with no communication network among tenants in general. In sum, ten years after rent control left Cambridge, the tenant movement had withered rapidly – and there is now no grassroots tenant movement. The true grassroots And now, in the People’s Republic of Cambridge (if it can still be called that), there is a grassroots homeowner movement. It began with Cambridge’s small landlords, who revolted and launched the successful 1994 repeal of rent control. It was followed by a wider revolt of homeowners, who persuaded the Cambridge City Council in 1999 to derail a condo conversion ban with strong tinges of rent control. And it culminated in this latest, much broader base of homeowners, who trekked out in unusual numbers on a rainy, bitter-cold day to say “NO” to a regressive return to rent control. And behind this grassroots homeowner movement is the Small Property Owners Association, carefully maintaining its large membership, keeping its members donating regularly, alerting its members to the threats that come in all directions, and being prepared – as it was this fall – to launch an all-out effort to defeat the most serious danger of all – a popular election on the very issue of rent control itself. To read more election analysis, click here.