Proposal for ‘right of first refusal’ returns, inspired by councillor’s experience in 1977
I bought my first home by right of first refusal before it was ever a concept. It was 1977, and an apartment complex outside of Harvard Square was converting to condominiums. We were offered the choice to buy out someone’s rental unit, but did not feel comfortable forcing another resident out. Ultimately, we negotiated renting another unit with the option to buy, which allowed the other residents to remain and still gave us homeownership. We got a home, the renter got to stay in his home, and the property owner made money without displacing anyone.
This good-faith agreement was the only way my wife and I could afford to buy a home in Cambridge. We were fortunate to have a landlord open to such an agreement, and the other tenant was fortunate that we were the prospective buyer instead of someone less concerned with their well-being. While this isn’t exactly a right of first refusal, it was a good faith effort that kept us in Cambridge.
Unfortunately, we cannot rely on good faith to solve the affordability crisis in Cambridge. It is virtually impossible for a young couple just starting out in life to buy a home anywhere in Cambridge, let alone outside of Harvard Square. That is why it is important for us to pass a right of first refusal ordinance and codify the good faith agreement that I was fortunate to benefit from.
Right of first refusal means the first option to buy a rental property before it goes to the public. It does not cost the homeowner a cent and gives renters an opportunity to own that they otherwise might not have. It also gives nonprofit organizations the option to buy the property at market rate for affordable housing purposes. This helped to preserve nearly 1,400 units of affordable housing in Washington, D.C., between 2003 and 2013. The law there allowed renters to fairly compete against all cash investor buyers by giving them time to assemble financing, while still providing a market rate return to homeowners. Judging by Washington, D.C., real estate, there is no fear of cooling off a red-hot housing market.
State Rep. Denise Provost recently submitted legislation for right of first refusal that unfortunately did not get out of committee. This leaves Cambridge and cities struggling with affordable housing to chart our own paths. A local ordinance could ensure we have a law that allows exemptions to family members, provides a grace period for homeowners to negotiate with tenants and limits displacement.
This Monday sees the return of a policy order I wrote requesting a home rule petition to create a right of first refusal ordinance in Cambridge. I encourage residents to tell their city and state representatives that this is a much-needed, simple proposal to keep residents in their homes. It pains me to know that current and future generations of families will not benefit from the same opportunities I had. The right of first refusal is but one of many ideas we must explore and implement if we are serious about addressing affordability in U.S. cities. We can’t rely on good will and words without actions to address this problem.
Dennis Carlone is a three-term Cambridge city councillor, as well as an architect and city planner.