by Fred Cohn, January 2001
The fundamental problem with rent control is that the buildings disintegrate.
You start off with the idea that the buildings are like granite rocks and they are fine, and then you realize after a while, the buildings are deteriorating.
Historically, a long period of time went on when no capital improvements were allowed or done, so the buildings were allowed to deteriorate.
In those early years, the tenant movement was opposed to seeing capital going into the buildings. Their goal and that of many of the more ideological staff members of the rent control board was to hold down rents and NOT encourage investment in buildings. The people running rent control were always skeptical about what work needed to be done and how much it cost, even though many of them had no experience in construction. They had no realistic view of the cost of doing the work, of how much has to be spent year by year to keep buildings in service.
When you pursue that policy for any period of time, you have buildings with serious capital needs, and the money needed becomes very large in relation to the ability of the tenants to pay it.
We needed vast amounts of money that were not going to come through. When buildings get ignored, the cost of maintaining them becomes much higher than it would have been if there had been regular capital investment all along.
After 25 years of rent control, the buildings were running downhill, not getting the capital transfers they needed, and so there was accelerated abandonment.
The realities of the cost situation are just much higher than the tenant community would like to think it should be. They just don’t want to hear what it costs to keep a building going. Their idea is that you can have a free lunch.
Fred Cohn – builder, lawyer, World War II veteran, former president of the Cambridge Civic Association and longest-serving member of the old Cambridge Rent Control Board (from its beginning until its end in 1995) – died January 15, 2001, two weeks after he gave the Small Property Owners Association (SPOA) this statement.