Rent control defeat shows skeletal tenant movement

Historic Cambridge Vote


61% say “NO”

Now they had their chance. The 1994 statewide repeal of rent control was, they always said, outsiders forcing Cambridge to give up what a majority in Cambridge wanted. Now Cambridge citizens could at least say they wanted rent control in a popular referendum.
But this past November, citizens in the so-called People’s Republic delivered an historic 61% landslide vote against rent control on a ballot question asking for its return. What had once been a seemingly vigorous tenant movement throughout Cambridge’s 25-year history of rent control had fallen, after rent control’s repeal, into near-total apathy.

No tenant movement

A high voter turnout last Election day favored a strong tenant vote, since Cambridge is two-thirds tenants. But for all that rent control might have appealed to them, less than one-seventh of these tenants turned out to vote. On the owner side, however, fully one-third of all Cambridge owners voted.

Closer analysis shows that Average Joe Market-Rate Tenants, those with supposedly “skyrocketing” rents, simply did not vote strongly for rent control. The pro-rent-control vote came most heavily from precincts with many units of subsidized housing for families and precincts with many college dormitories.

In other words, the people who voted most strongly for rent control were people with already subsidized rents or students in two of the world’s top universities, likely receiving parental help, scholarships or government loans and expecting to earn high salaries later in life – people who would neither be affected by nor need rent control. Market-rate tenants either stayed home or voted more often against rent control than for it.

Big owners sit on their hands, small owners fight

In September, at the start of the campaign, SPOA Executive Director Skip Schloming was bluntly told to expect no financial help from the state’s leading group of large rental property owners. With the exception of three local large owners, no large owners gave generously to the campaign.

Meanwhile, fear of rent control motivated large numbers of small property owners to fight the Cambridge referendum with many donations and volunteer time.

In an intensive direct-mail campaign, 16 different pieces of literature were sent to various homeowner groups in the city, explaining how the proposed new rent control would hurt each class of owners. Volunteers simultaneously called homeowners from half a dozen phone lines at campaign headquarters, urging them to read the literature, getting the key points across, and asking them to talk to their neighbors.

Low-cost campaign

With no mega-bucks from large owners, no one can claim it was a bought election. While successful Cambridge City Councilors spent from $12 to $25 for each No. 1 vote they got, the SPOA campaign spent just $8 per “NO” vote.

The argument that worked

Unlike the 1994 rent control referendum, this campaign did not focus on the horror stories of small property owners or the abuses of rich tenants living in rent-controlled apartments. We had to appeal to liberals who once supported rent control and who thought rent control had no effect on them. We had to appeal to the owner-occupied 2- and 3-family homeowners who were always exempt from rent control and, above all, to Cambridge’s wealthy and liberal single-family homeowners.

The argument that worked was rent control’s eroding effect on the city’s tax base. (See chart.) By 1995, Cambridge’s tax base hit rock-bottom while the residential tax rate soared. That was after rent control had reduced rents to $500 below market level and starved a large sector of Cam-bridge’s tax base of capital improvements. Without rent control, the tax base more than tripled while the tax rate plummeted.

The argument – that a new rent control would again deliberately depress the rents and property values on a huge chunk of the residential sector and thereby reduce Cam-bridge’s overall tax base – was compelling to Cambridge homeowners. They still had vivid memories of the rampant dilapidated housing that rent control had left in its wake throughout most of Cambridge, visual proof that rent control does indeed destroy housing.

Rent control’s core weakness

Rent control was never a response to a tenant movement. It creates a tenant movement. And its repeal in 1994 effectively ended the tenant movement in Cambridge, Boston and Brookline. It also ended the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA), which began as a Republican “clean government” group in the 1940’s to remove corrupt Democratic city politicians, embraced rent control in the 1970s, easily won elections and dominated city politics by holding tight to rent control and rejecting all reforms – only to become nearly lifeless after rent control ended.

As Glenn Koocher, a 35-year observer of Cambridge politics, put it: “For the rent control leaders decades ago, it was never about housing: it was about 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. 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, the left over hard-lefties who forgot that the ’60s and ’70s were over and they lost. Responsible elected officials shook timidly as their political gonads shriveled at the prospects of being left off those tenant or CCA [endorsement] cards if they so much as hinted that any part of rent control should be changed.”

Cambridge tax base & tax rate, 1990-2004

In 1995, tax base is lowest when rent control ends; residential tax rate is highest to compensate for it.

Year Total real property
assessed values
Residential tax rate
(per $1,000)
2004 $ 7.63*
2003 $17,382,800,000 $ 7.26
2002 $16,532,000,000 $ 7.22
2001 $12,410,100,000 $ 9.21
2000 $10,763,200,000 $ 9.64
1999 $ 9,286,600,000 $11.05
1998 $ 7,254,700,000 $13.43
1997 $ 7,006,100,000 $13.02
1996 $ 6,783,000,000 $13.32
1995 $ 6,533,400,000 $14.17
1994 $ 6,576,200,000 $13.79
1993 $ 6,852,000,000 $13.33
1992 $ 7,621,900,000 $12.21
1991 $ 8,482,800,000 $10.13
1990 $ 8,360,300,000 $ 9.51

Small owners carry campaign; big owners sit on their hands

As the chart below clearly shows, small owners almost entirely funded this successful campaign against rent control. Small donations dominated; virtually 80% of all donations were $100 or less. SPOA was told not to expect any funding from the large “industry” group, and it got none. Only three local large owners contributed larger sums. By “large” owners we mean owning more than 100 units.

Donation to Cambridge Homeowners Coalition

Number of Donations
$10-40 163
$50-75 147
$80-100 155
$150-250 69
$300-500 36
$1,000 12
$2,500-10,000 3

Only those on the dole from Mom, Pop, Uncle Sam & taxpayers wanted rent control

The top line of this table is the notable finding. It shows a high concentration of subsidized housing units for families OR a high concentration of student dormitories in those precincts that voted in favor of rent control.

Percent of voters in precinct voting YES on rent control Average no. of family public housing units per precinct Average no. of student dormitories (not rooms) per precinct
50% and over 149.4 units 6.4 dormitories
40% to 49% 108.1 units 1 dormitory
Under 40% 13.7 units 0.8 dormitory

Curiously, the elderly and disabled who live in subsidized housing did not vote for rent control. Here is another way to see it:

The four precincts voting 60% or more IN FAVOR OF rent control had the following:

% voting YES What’s in the precinct
Ward 2 Precinct 1 60.6% 443 public housing units (families)
Ward 2 Precinct 3 60.5% 9 MIT dormitories
Ward 7 Precinct 3 61.3% 17 Harvard dormitories
Ward 11 Precinct 1 64.6% 796 public housing units (families)

Conclusion: Average Joe Market-Rate Tenants had the lowest pro-rent-control vote compared to subsidized tenants and students, indicating that there is no grassroots tenant movement among those who would have been affected by rent control.



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