Housing Affordability & Tenant Protections.

Quinton with the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants at the Massachusetts State House rally for rent control

Housing affordability is a pressing and omnipresent concern for most residents. Renters across the city live in fear of an arbitrary rent increase or eviction, and too many are permanently displaced every year. This status quo is simply unacceptable, and the council has failed to act for too many years.

The root causes of the crisis we face include the 1994 repeal of rent control and the city’s commercial development boom, both of which have led to massive displacement and instability for our most vulnerable residents. In just the last six years, median household income in The Port has risen by $20,000 as the neighborhood has gotten 10% whiter and 8% less black, while all other demographic groups have stayed relatively stable. If these trends continue, the neighborhood will soon no longer be majority-minority, as traditional communities of color are ripped apart and replaced with higher-income earning, mostly white residents.

Market-based tweaks like raising the inclusionary zoning percentage, increasing commercial linkage fees, or even the recent affordable housing overlay do not meaningfully address the crisis at the scale that is needed. Even if we reach our goal to build 100 units of new affordable housing per year, we won’t build enough housing fast enough to keep up with the 19,000 person waiting list for affordable housing in Cambridge. This year Councillor Carlone and I negotiated with the City Manager to add enough funding to our affordable housing construction budget to reach our goal. While we definitely need to continue to explore ways to add more affordable housing, our primary focus should be on tenant protections to stop displacement in its tracks and give renters the housing stability they deserve.

Cambridge should join Somerville and Boston in banging at the doors of the statehouse with as many home rule petitions as it takes to get the outcome we need for our renters. That is why earlier this term, I was one of just three councillors to vote for moving ahead with a discussion of Tenant Right of First Refusal, which gives tenants the first opportunity to buy when a house goes on the market. It’s hard to believe that this concept was killed by the majority before it could even be discussed.

Our options for protecting renters are not completely blocked at the state level; in this term alone Somerville was able to strengthen protections for those facing eviction due to condo conversion AND pass a law requiring that landlords provide tenants facing eviction with a list of resources and their rights. While I greatly appreciate and respect the hard work that went into this year’s tenant protections task force, we are still awaiting the final report. The Cambridge City Council had an opportunity to strengthen the Condo Conversion Ordinance back in 2000, but it was killed on a 4-5 vote then, and we’ve yet to try it again!

The rent control law that existed in Cambridge prior to the 1994 statewide ban was far from perfect, but ultimately effective in accomplishing the goal of providing stability to renters and protecting them from eviction. The flip-of-the-switch outright repeal was absolutely devastating and that aftermath has spiraled out of control into the affordability crisis we see today. Nobody is saying we should go back to 1994, but it is time to implement a 21st century version of rent control that learns from the past and finds a way to give renters the protection they deserve without completely handcuffing property owners. California and Oregon recently passed statewide laws capping rent increases at 5% and 7% plus inflation, respectively, and we need similar protections in Cambridge as well. Renters also need stronger protection from arbitrary evictions, and more notice when an eviction does occur. The current requirement of 30 days notice is simply not enough time for most people to come up with the money it takes to find a new place to live in a competitive market.

I am one of the only councillors to publicly support Rep Connolly’s “Housing for All” agenda which is truly a visionary approach to addressing the affordability crisis at the state level. The six bills:

  • H.3924 would give municipalities the tools needed to enact basic rent stabilization (excluding 3-unit or smaller owner occupied buildings) and tenant protection policies. Just about every bold policy we could enact to help renters is blocked at the state level; this bill would erase that obstacle.
  • H.3931 would require multifamily housing near transit.
  • H.3883 would lower the threshold for municipalities to adopt or strengthen their inclusionary zoning ordinance.
  • H.3878 would add a billion dollars to the recently passed housing bond bill, including 250 million specifically directed at local housing authorities.
  • H.3887 is modeled after San Francisco’s Proposition C of 2018 and would tax large businesses in order to provide the resources to finally address homelessness in the Commonwealth
  • H.3889 would allow municipalities to enact a vacancy tax in order to curb speculation in our housing market!