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Let’s talk about rent control; our community’s soul is at stake

When a floor of a three-decker in the middle of Dorchester in St. Mark’s sells for over $300,000 and small two bedroom condos in a four-family on Jones Hill in Dorchester go for $500,000, we have a big, big problem.

Dare I say the words “rent control”? They’ve hardly been uttered hereabouts since 1994.

There is a fight going on for the soul of the city, and the people are losing. Will we be a city with people of working-class income and poor people, or not? Very few, it seems, based on what’s going on today.

Unless you are in one of these situations, you are gone, or “going, going, gone” from being able to live in Boston:

1. You own your home, and better yet, you bought it more than 10 years ago so you aren’t making terribly high mortgage payments.
2. You live in public housing.
3. You live in privately owned but publicly subsidized housing
4. You are single and live with several others yet you still pay a huge percentage of your income for rent.

Unfortunately, all these cases together make up but a third of the city’s housing units, so most of Boston is no longer affordable for working class-income people. And forget about it the poor – unless they live in public housing or have one of the limited rent subsidy certificates.

Yes, it will help to build and subsidize more affordable housing. Mayor Walsh has options before him to increase the linkage fee on development, which provides funds for affordable housing and to increase the percentage of affordable units in new development through the Inclusionary Zoning policy. He can join with community groups in working for a Community Preservation Act Referendum, which might gain $20 million more for affordable housing. This all must be done; doing so will help save and build many affordable units. But there is nowhere near enough government subsidy money obtainable to reverse or stem the building tide of more and more unaffordable housing.

Rent control as a policy can mean a range of laws. It can exempt owner-occupied one-to-three family homes and some systems exempt up to six-unit owner-occupied homes. Other systems evaluate each proposed rent increase and grant boosts based on increasing costs; and still others grant annual increases covering all units but allow owners to request a further increase based on special circumstances. And some systems are temporary, allowing owners to re-rent their units at whatever level they want when a tenant moves. This is called vacancy decontrol. It’s more accurate to call these variations “rent stabilization” instead of “rent control.”

How did we lose rent stabilization/rent control in 1994? The absentee landlords paid people to collect signatures to place it on the ballot. The state’s attorney general made a controversial ruling: Even though only Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline had forms of rent control, a statewide referendum could be held allowing voters from all 351 communities in Massachusetts to vote to abolish it or not in these three communities. The absentee landlords outspent the tenants by 10-1, but only won 51 percent-49 percent. The people of Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge voted by large margins to keep their forms of rent control, but the absentee landlords won, and the income character of who live in these communities has changed drastically.

It will take a tremendous commitment from Mayor Walsh and a great mobilization by community groups and labor unions to get the Boston City Council to pass any form of rent regulation. It will not be easy as the absentee landlords will raise money to donate to councilors, and those who may only own a single building will fight to preserve the right to make as much as they can at the expense of tenants. And you can be sure that some absentee landlord groups will falsely charge that rent control covers owner- occupied buildings, although it wouldn’t. Still, they will try to scare such homeowners into joining their side.

If Boston passed a law to regulate rents in any way, even something far short of a full rent control law, it would have to be approved by the Legislature since legally Boston cannot do this without that approval. With so many lawmakers representing communities that would not be affected by such a change, and with the lobbying clout of absentee landlords in play, any notion of a change in Boston seems very remote.

It’s so painful to me to see our Dorchester, and our city, change so that so many have been forced to leave by high rents and home prices. This strong housing market will continue to produce housing affordability refugees. It’s unlikely this sad story will be rewritten any time soon, but when the soul of our city is at stake, I feel compelled to shout out: “Rent control/rent stabilization will save the soul of our city.”

It comes to mind that I have to pray to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of lost causes, for help on this one. I have done that, but others must step up, too, or we will continue to lose the soul of our neighborhood and our city.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.