Sunday, June 23, 2024

The overwhelming issue facing our city now is how, somehow, to prevent longtime residents from becoming displaced by ever-rising rents. Previous rent controls here, for 25 years, created unsightly deferred maintenance and community-destroying class warfare … and they became so notorious, they were outlawed in 1994 by a well-publicized statewide ballot referendum.

Today, restoring rent control is, in political reality, very probably a false hope, because bringing it back would now require state approvals from both the state Legislature and governor (both more businesslike and less radical than most of us here in Cambridge). And, even were they to be approved, today’s more conservative U.S. Supreme Court might well soon apply more widely the Fifth Amendment’s very strict requirement that private property “shall not be taken for public use without just compensation.”

Think about this analogy: If people can’t afford food, we don’t fix food prices in supermarkets. Instead, we give needy people practical, publicly paid credit cards for food (originally called food stamps). Do we really think any new Cambridge city bureaucracy could do a better job of preventing hunger by imposing price controls upon Market Basket and Whole Foods Market instead of our far-better method of invisible and sensible public subsidies based only on need?

Price controls inherently involve no means test. My Yale roommate’s wealthy family kept its huge Manhattan river-view apartment vacant for three years while moving around the world! During Cambridge’s 1970-94 rent control period, most apartments here were distributed to whomever paid the most reward (never to the needy landlord, but rather to the previous, often affluent, tenant moving out just for the introduction to the unfortunate, entrapped property owner. (Believe it or not, “reward for information on a rent-controlled apartment” postings appeared all over our street corners! Fast-moving graduate students won most of these “rewards.”)

Another popular but defective current idea (promoted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s ever-Kendall-Square-aware planners) is the proposed citywide zoning revision to allow big, boxy five-story and eight-story new buildings to be built on any street in any Cambridge residential neighborhood with much less open space for tree roots and less sunshine for anyone, ending traditional binding reviews by our planning and zoning appeals boards – a blatantly insensitive approach that would have overridden our discrete neighborhoods’ architectural and historical harmonies. What a roundabout, slow, ineffective way to try to create more affordable housing.

Here are some fairer, faster and far more sensible ways to prevent displacement of our existing residents.

A simple factual example of the problem leads to its solution: As a Realtor, I have direct personal knowledge of a recent new tenant for a small one-bedroom condo, arriving for a job in one of those many new biotech towers in Kendall Square. This single person earns a salary of $400,000 a year. This real example, plus very many others like it, is the hidden but real cause of our community’s huge problem: How can ordinary Cambridge citizens compete with such increasing incoming wealth? Is our current zoning policy, which encourages resident-displacing new office buildings, really proving wise, fair or moral for the health of our citizens?

Without paying attention to the residents who are forced to move away from home, our current and recent city managers have seemed to be quite content with this comfortable-for-them status quo. They’ve bragged consistently about lowering our super-low real estate tax rate each year by commercial properties here in Cambridge, uniquely, paying two-thirds the costs of running this city. But our managers and city councils have simply kept lowering instead of maintaining or raising our tax rate, which could have instead fostered innovative programs to meet emerging social needs, such as appropriate “rent scholarships” for worthy residents being displaced, plus city-provided second mortgages to increase homeownership here.

On that idea, our city pays just 2 percent interest for raising money from tax-exempt municipal bonds. So we could give residents 4 percent interest second mortgages (far below commercial rates of more than 18 percent) for half of the customary 20 percent down-payment above a first mortgage for a condo and (after initial startup costs) the city would make money while enabling the financial stability of homeownership to residents who don’t have enough savings for the down-payment above a typical 80 percent of price bank mortgage Only one-third of our Cambridge citizens here own their home – shouldn’t we take this simple civic step to change that ratio gradually to, say, half owners, half tenants, creating a happier city for everyone at little or no civic cost?

Our city should also consider bidding on, or using its power of eminent domain for acquiring, any sizable apartment building that comes up for sale if it would be suitable to house some of our selfless teachers or police, firefighters, hospital workers, social workers or clergy. Let’s face reality: We can no longer expect these vital community-makers to pay market rents here. Making them face a too-long commute instead of helping them live within our community is unfair to them and unhealthy for all.

Please compare these 2019 residential tax rates per $1,000 of house or condo valuation: Watertown, $12.88; Belmont, $11.67; Arlington, $11.26; Somerville, $10.76; Boston, $10.54. But Scrooge-like Cambridge, just $5.94! Our city managers call this super-low figure “fiscal responsibility,” but it’s also an objective measure of low societal concern, something religious or secular folk sense is the essence of immorality and a quick route to unhappiness. Please listen to the obvious prophecy these tax figures are saying: “Repent now, or face communal doom soon.”

Of course, the simplest solution to our serious displacement problems would be for us to just say (as some very understandably have suggested), “Let’s stop all new office construction. Enough is enough. It’s great for tax revenues, but bad for a community. This new construction is breaking our sense of citywide belonging.”

But that restriction on free enterprise (like suggesting mandatory rent controls or “rent stabilization” on private property) would really be too extreme and counterproductive. Instead, let’s keep Kendall Square’s helpful added tax revenues but just tighten our office and educational zoning with one new, sensible displacement-reducing requirement. Let’s change our zoning to specify that any new office construction citywide must now also include a corresponding number of new apartments anywhere reasonably accessible to that office by walk, subway or shuttle bus equal to the number of the proposed new employees in the proposed new building.

Not all of those employees, of course, will decide to live in the corresponding apartments, but might prefer to buy a condo or live elsewhere, leaving their waived apartments open for other tenants. As any marketplace analyst or economist would tell us, increasing the supply of apartments acts correspondingly to reduce the marketplace rents in that area! (Econ. 101, or supply and demand). For example: If half the new employees of a new 100-person office prefer another alternative, that add 50 apartments to our housing supply at no cost of our city. The disruptive citywide zoning overlay projected only 30 units per year at the likely maximum.

Because I’ve long been primarily a residential, not a commercial, real estate broker, I confess I had been a little worried that this community-saving zoning requirement might discourage too many office developers. But here’s some major news on this subject: Just last Friday, I attended the annual reunion of my Yale Alumni Real Estate Association. The principal speaker there was Jonathan Rose, who manages $111 billion (not a misprint) of commercial real estate for his Blackstone Group and affiliates, making him by far the largest commercial developer in the world. When I got the chance to ask a question, I described my proposal to prevent displacement in Cambridge and asked him if he thought it was feasible.

His stunningly favorable answer filled me with joy. He said, “I’m very familiar with Cambridge: I’m perhaps the largest landlord in Kendall Square. And I really like public/private partnerships, as long as they’re reasonable, as something like this could be.” What better endorsement could our city possibly ask? Because of knowledge-synergy effects, every biotech company in the world wants to be in Kendall Square, near MIT and Harvard. Let’s play that card for all its worth and ask more of them to help our now-more-needy voting population.

Here’s still another zoning suggestion to increase affordable housing at no cost to the city: I personally know several older owner-occupants of large Victorians here who feel they “have more house than we really need” and would love to be able to subdivide it into two or three apartments. But our zoning doesn’t allow that in single-family neighborhoods. As long as the exterior isn’t changed or enlarged (except perhaps by a new entrance not readily visible from the street) why not allow it? Older owners deserve the right to have new nearby caretaker friends who will get  affordable housing in a nice neighborhood.

Way back in 1963 I bought – through a nonprofit trust I’d set up – an empty three-family house at 64-66 Wendell St. near Harvard. Friends and I converted it into one very large living space for our existing 1943 nonprofit cooperative house. which was losing its lease. We made our quarters into a shared living room, dining room and kitchen, eight bedrooms on three floors sharing three baths and a common backyard and basement. The residents are the owners, for as long as they live there; and they get along well with all neighboring houses.

But city zoning was tightened a few years later, and another cooperative group can no longer occupy a big house in this way. Why not? Allowing more of this would add affordable housing at no cost to the city and with no measurable disadvantage to any neighborhood. Today, many people like to live as such non-traditional “families.” Isn’t it long overdue for our zoning to be modernized to match. It’s still another way to expand affordable housing without tearing apart neighborhoods on city-price-fixing rents.

Let’s apply these analyses to our upcoming election. The 11 candidates who have wisely against the proposed neighborhood-destroying upzoning are Dennis Carlone, Charles Franklin, Craig Kelley, Derek Kopon, Ilan Levy, Jeffery McNary, Petty Nolan, John Pitkin, Ben Simon, Nicola Williams and Quinton Zondervan. Of those, Franklin, Kopon, Simon and Zondervan have endorsed mandatory “rent stabilization” controls (instead of publicly funded rent subsidies, which could work in far more efficient and fairer ways); so I suggest ranking those four lower on a  ballot, but still recommend numbering all 11 because the local rent controls are unlikely to get necessary statewide approvals; those views may well prove harmless.

In our unique Cambridge voting system, your ballot can count for only one councillor, but you really need to number quite a few to ensure your ballot will survive prior candidate eliminations by the time yours is counted. Cambridge is an unusually complicated city; and our electoral system is even more so.

Let’s inaugurate some new ideas Tuesday and create a less divisive and more caring community.

Fred Meyer, Hammond Street

Fred Meyer is a past president of the Cambridge, Greater Boston and Massachusetts Realtor Associations.