Glenn Koocher’s Historical Perspective

History of what was really behind Rent Control in Cambridge

A native of Cambridge, MA, Glenn Koocher served on the Cambridge School Committee from 1974-1986. On the board, he was vice chair, chairs of the Committees on: Budget, Special Education, Student Concerns, and Personnel Policy, and delegate representative to both the Community Schools Commission and the city’s Community Action Program. On the School Committee, he served as budget chair during the implementation of Proposition 2 1/2 and was actively engaged through that city’s multi-year desegregation effort.
Mr. Koocher graduated from the Cambridge Public Schools and earned a BA at Harvard College (1971). He is an alumnus of the Kennedy School’s Program for State and Local Government Executives and received an MPA from Suffolk University.

An interesting other element of public information in relationship to the rent control initiative is the history of what was really behind Rent Control in Cambridge. It can help us understand what’s in the future.

Watching political organizers in Cambridge for more than 35 years, I’ve reached the conclusion that, for the leaders of the rent control movement of decades ago, it was never about housing: it was about control – control of the local political process; control of the public agenda; control in general – the driving force behind the enforced political correctness that defined Cambridge politics of the era and the agenda of the clique of otherwise unelectables known as the Cambridge Civic Association Board of Directors. Of course it was also about philosophical opposition to the private ownership of property (as opposed to opposition to the private ownership of automobiles – which is probably a whole other Cambridge screed).

It was about how using rent control and playing off our proportional representation system of voting, kept a small cadre of the unelected in control behind the scenes while groveling elected officials exploited the situation in exchange for their own right to participate in local politics.

And what is it now all about: another effort to co-opt people into the agenda of a few ideologues, still about control – but not really about housing. It’s still about the empowerment of the unelected – the people who rarely have the guts to put their names on ballots but who love to manipulate strings of their political marionettes.

Remember how the “tenant leaders” had real, intelligent elected officials groveling at the feet of the four or five ideologues, theorists, control-freaks, psychos, and/or undiagnosed victims of Narcissistic Advocate Personality Disorder who ran the Cambridge Tenant Union – the left over hard-lefties who forgot that the sixties and seventies were over and they lost. The same people who were so strident and intolerant of dissent that they helped alienate moderates and drove them into the hands of the conservatives.

Remember their strategy? Tell the 16,000 tenants (many of whom barely knew or cared that Cambridge was a distinct political subdivision of Massachusetts) that the only thing they needed to know about local government was that a) there were elections every two years and b) for cheap rents, they needed to turn out and vote for the slate that the CCA or the Tenants Union drew up. Remember how responsible public elected officials shook timidly as their political gonads shriveled at the prospects of being left off those tenant or CCA slate cards if they so much as hinted that any part of the Rent Control Ordinance should be considered for change?

And, remember how the CTU leaders acted when the voters abolished Rent Control. Remember how Governor Bill Weld and House Speaker Charlie Flaherty explained to the city council exactly what the legislature would consider for ameliorating legislation even after the voters turned out rent control: 1) any alternative would have to phase out over a couple of years, 2) protect people only the people in greatest economic and social need, and 3) put in place reasonable accommodations for people who owned their own homes or units right away. And remember how the half dozen hard core leaders of the CTU stood in the back of the city council chambers shouting and demanding a return of the pre-referendum status quo? Remember how uncomfortable the pro-rent control members of the council were as they sweat with fear while the tenant organizers/manipulators demanded nothing less than full reinstatement of the full rent control law – even though the legislature would never go for it, and Weld would veto it and send it back to an unsympathetic legislature.

And remember how quickly many of the city council’s members, past and then present, stated how important it would have been to have made compromises earlier (but never mentioned why they lacked the guts to do something for 20 years) – among the most hypocritical statements in our local history?

Was the rent control movement about housing, or, as the rent control law was going down, were CTU leaders doing their best imitations of Eastern European dictators at the fall of the Berlin Wall – screaming like angry children at the thought of loss of their illegitimate strangle hold over the people and city politics in general (complete, by the way, with the anti-semetic accoutrements including photos and epithets directed almost exclusively at certain Jewish landlords – a racist campaign cobbled together by the organizers. That did not go unnoticed by many of us who were saddened that when it came to the mission, nothing would stop the organizers.)

Remember how after only 10% of the protected units were found to be occupied by low income or elderly tenants, those leaders of the rent control movement lowered their profile significantly, went underground, left town, or disappeared lest they have to face the people whom they screwed by 20 years of stridency that camouflaged their lust for power and control.
The rent control campaign was never about housing – it was about the efforts of a small group of people to use the tools of democracy to play out their need to be noticed, to be obeyed, and to control. What is the mantra of the narcissist: “I exist, notice me, and ignore me at your peril.” Doesn’t Cambridge have its share, and then some?

And sadly, we lost the chance to do the right thing: to have a workable, reasonable system that would have saved hundreds of families who were forced to leave the city; who might have kept Cambridge from evolving into a city of the economically elite and the economically disadvantaged with fewer and fewer people in the middle.

If they had only allowed people to reside in their own condominiums, Question 2 (that abolished rent control) would never have happened. But the hard left wouldn’t go for it because it would dilute their ideological control.

If they had simply targeted large buildings or exempted all three family homes, the anti-rent control movement would never have gotten off the ground, but the hard left wouldn’t go for that either because if the tension abated they could not exploit the tenant vote.

Why be part of the solution if you can be part of the problem?

Sorry to be so caustic, but after three decades of dealing with plain and simple narcissists masquerading as soldiers for social justice, it’s time we called it for what it is.

Glenn Koocher

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