Notes on the (failed) Rent Control Initiative Petition of 2003

The Rent Control Initiative Petition was defeated by a 61.4% to 38.6% margin - 7832 votes in favor and 12467 votes opposed. This lopsided defeat probably marks the permanent end of rent control as an issue in Cambridge.

Distribution of votes by precinct (Rent Control Ballot Question)

Pre-election: There will also be a ballot question on rent control on the Nov 4 Cambridge ballot. Read more about this at these sites:     

FOR Rent Control (link no longer exists)
(Committee for Cambridge Rent Control - CCRC) 

AGAINST Rent Control (link no longer exists)
(Cambridge Homeowners Coalition - CHC)

October 26 - This Monday's City Council meeting will likely be dominated by 11th hour negotiations and discussion on the Riverside rezoning. If the Council fails to come to an agreement (that can secure the necessary six or seven votes), they'll meet again Tuesday morning at 10am to hammer out the last details. Give extra credit to the M&M boys (Councillors David Maher and Brian Murphy), co-chairs of the Ordinance Committee, for all their efforts to bring this to a successful conclusion.
    Also on the agenda for Monday is the Hot Potato Order on rent control first introduced by Councillor Maher at the Sept 27 meeting. That meeting was adjourned early to avoid discussion on the order. Last Monday (Oct 20), Councillor Simmons exercised her charter right to again delay discussion on the order. We'll see Monday what the next tactic will be to prevent the councillors from taking a public position on rent control. My guess is that there will be at least five votes to table it, a non-debatable motion.
    I would say two things about this business of forcing the incumbent councillors to speak their minds on the rent control issue.
    First, the rent control petition that will be on the Nov 4 ballot is hardly a "grassroots" movement with widespread public support, though it might get a majority vote. It's an effort spearheaded by The Old Left, the same people who were responsible for bringing rent control to Cambridge over 30 years ago. Even as the rest of Cambridge moved on or moved away, The Old Left carried on and has repeatedly tried to bring back rent control since 1994. Meanwhile the City Council and the City Administration have devoted an enormous amount of resources toward affordable housing programs in a comprehensive way, as opposed to the blunt instrument of rent control. One can certainly make the case that The Old Left should not be permitted to force their agenda on the elected officials who have been working unanimously on a much more comprehensive solution.
    That said, registered Cambridge voters will be casting their votes on November 4 not only for this hopeless petition but, more importantly, for candidates for City Council and School Committee. The City Council will ultimately have to make the decisions on housing policies for Cambridge, and the public does have a right to know where they stand. For this reason, and not because of the narrow agenda of The Old Left, the councillors should speak their minds on housing policies and not run away every time the issue of rent control comes up.

Weenyism 101 
Sept 30 - It was a foregone conclusion that the majority of the Cambridge City Councillors wanted to avoid taking a position on the doomed Rent Control Initiative Petition. How they would duck the issue was really the only question.
    The Council had several options for handling the matter at its Sept 29 meeting. Opponents wanted the Council to vote against the petition (which would allow it to go on the November ballot). Proponents also did not want the Council to vote in favor of the petition -- a curious twist to be sure -- since they want very much for this to be a local election issue (even though the petition has a snowball's chance in hell of securing the votes of one-third of all registered voters). So what would the Cambridge City Council do?
    Councillor David Maher drafted an order that asked the City Council make a statement about its priorities and accomplishments in creating and preserving affordable housing since the end of rent control. He also wanted the Council to take no action on the petition but to make clear its opposition to bringing rent control back to Cambridge. This is exactly the issue that some councillors did not want to address. So what would they do?
    Councillor Maher moved take the petition off the table and to suspend the rules to introduce his late order. Councillor Murphy immediately objected. (He had actually made a false start on an earlier matter brought up by Councillor Galluccio, expecting that it was this late order.) A majority of the councillors made it clear that they did not want to allow late orders to be introduced, normally a routine procedure at every Council meeting. Mayor Sullivan then said that there would be no late orders permitted, but stated that since the matter was before the Council, there could be discussion.
    At this point, Councillor Decker moved to immediately adjourn the meeting in order to prevent any discussion. The roll was called and Councillors Davis, Decker, Murphy, Reeves, and Simmons voted in favor of the adjournment. End of meeting.
    This was extraordinary. The rest of the meeting cancelled just so that some councillors could avoid taking a position on this. Nearly a decade has passed since rent control was tossed onto the dust heap and still it gets everyone as anxious as the Red Sox in the deciding game of the World Series.
    In truth, all the Council had to do was to amend one of the "RESOLVED" clauses of Maher's late order and they could have all looked like great diplomats. Instead, they ended up looking like Bill Buckner.

The Order That Was Not To Be:
(Actually, it was on the agenda for the Oct 20 meeting, but was delayed by charter right by Councillor Simmons. Unless the councillors can come up with another parliamentary trick to avoid taking a position on this, it will come up for discussion at the Oct 27 Council meeting.)

WHEREAS: Since 1995, the City of Cambridge, with the support and leadership of the City Council, has created and/or preserved more than 2,000 units of affordable housing; and
WHEREAS: With the support and leadership of the Cambridge City Council, the City of Cambridge adopted the Community Preservation Act in 2001, and allocated 80% of the preservation funds to affordable housing; and
WHEREAS: On September 15, 2003, the Cambridge City Council appropriated more than $8 million for affordable housing in the FY2005 budget which brings the total with leverage to $200 million invested in affordable housing; and
WHEREAS: The City has also created 139 new units of affordable housing through the inclusionary zoning and several hundred new units in the pipeline; and
WHEREAS: The City Council has before its Housing and Ordinance Committees proposals to create new incentives to zoning that would create new moderate income units; now be it therefore
RESOLVED: That the City Council go on record reaffirming its strong commitment to affordable housing; and be it further
RESOLVED: That the City Council go on record opposing the return of rent control to Cambridge in light of the divisiveness of this regulatory system; and be it further
RESOLVED: That the City Council take no action on the initiative petition for home rule legislation to re-establish rent control, recognizing that by the Council taking no action, the issue of sending a home rule petition to the state legislature to re-establish rent control will be decided by the citizens of Cambridge in the November 4, 2003 election.

Recent News on the Rent Control Initiative Petition  
Hot Potato 
Sept 28 - What's the City Council to do with the Rent Control Initiative Petition this Monday?
     If the Council votes this Monday to send the home rule petition to the state legislature, it will face a near certain death. It will also not appear on the ballot in this November's election. If the Council votes against it, then the home rule petition will appear on the November ballot where it would need to receive the YES votes of not only a majority of those voting but also of one-third of all registered voters in order to be sent to the state legislature (where it will face a near certain death). It is anticipated that barely one-third of registered voters will vote in this year's election, so failure is essentially guaranteed.
     If this past Tuesday's Special City Council meeting on this matter is any indication, City Council sentiments are clearly not in support of this petition. Councillor Simmons was the only one who was clearly in favor. Councillors Decker and Murphy were noncommittal, both stating that they were waiting to hear from the Election Commission regarding the challenge to the certification of signatures on the petition. [The Election Commission has since ruled that there are indeed sufficiently many certified signatures, though further legal action may follow.]
     Councillor Decker expressed concern that "this debate would paralyze this community." Councillor Murphy made clear that whatever opinion one may have about rent control, it was unlikely that this petition would lead to rent control anytime soon. Councillor Davis did not address the issue at the Council hearing.
    Councillors Maher and Galluccio and Mayor Sullivan were clearly opposed to the petition. Councillor Toomey also seemed disinclined to support the petition at this time.
     It was Councillor Reeves who said it best (as he often does). He said that he now has good friends on both sides of this issue -- a measure of being a human being. He told the supporters of the petition that it is very important to win the battles that you choose. He also told of being "beat up by people who support this," but stated that only one of the nine councillors signed the petition. "The legislature is not going to pass this," he said. After reminding the supporters that it would also then have to be signed by the Republican governor, he said, "I don't get it. With an 8-1 count, I don't know what the expectations are."
     It will be interesting to hear the rhetoric on Monday. It will be even more interesting to see who votes for and against this matter. It will be most interesting to understand what the motivations behind the votes are in this election year. In a way, it's really just a question of the means of execution. -- Robert Winters 

Sept 28 - At the Sept 24 Election Commission hearing to decide the fate of the Rent Control Initiative Petition, it was determined that there were sufficiently many signatures to allow the petition to proceed to the City Council or to the November ballot. That determination is still apparently being challenged in court. Nonetheless, the City Council is expected to bring the matter to a vote this Monday, Sept 29.
Sept 18 - At the Sept 17 meeting of the Cambridge Election Commission, the William McDermott, lawyer for the Massachusetts Homeowners Coalition, submitted a protest of 1,450 signatures out of the 4,495 signatures certified by the Commission for the initiative petition. Ellen Schacter of Cambridge & Somerville Legal Services, attorney for CCRC, submitted a protest of 113 signatures that were not certified by the Commission. Both sides will be permitted to submit up to 50 additional protested signatures by 3pm on Friday, Sept 19. A hearing to decide on the protested signatures will be held at the Cambridge Election Commission at 2pm on Wednesday, Sept 24.
    With this many protested signatures, it is possible that this hearing may have to be continued to the following day. The Commission must make its final determination no later than Sept 26. There are four election commissioners. It takes a majority of these four to change the certification status of a signature. In the event of a 2-2 tie, the status quo prevails.
Sept 11
-- The Committee for Cambridge Rent Control on Sept 5 filed 470 sheets containing a total of 6,967 signatures on a petition entitled "An Act Regulating Residential Rents and Evictions in the City of Cambridge". The Cambridge Election Commission certified 4,495 of those signatures. This represents 8.36% of the 53,785 registered voters at the time of filing and therefore meets the minimum 8% requirement for the initiative petition to be forwarded to the City Council. If ultimately passed, the initiative petition would implement local rent controls and restrict other rights of rental property owners.
    Any party that wishes to challenge the certification of signatures has a 48 hour period to file that challenge. This means that the challenge would have to be filed with the Election Commission no later than 3:40pm on Friday, Sept 12. Should this happen, an Election Commission "prehearing" has been scheduled for Wed, Sept 17. Both the proponents and the opponents will have the opportunity to inspect signatures at the Election Commission between now and then, and copies of the signatures have been made for this purpose. Should there be a challenge, a final hearing would take place on Sept 24. State law requires that a final determination be made within 14 days of the challenge.
    The City Council will now have the option of approving the petition as filed and sending it to the state legislature as a home rule petition. If the Council chooses not to do this, the petition would then appear on this November's municipal ballot. It would face the nearly impossible task of winning not only a majority of the popular vote but also one-third of the total number of registered voters. This is dictated by state law. Based on estimates of the number of people who will likely vote this November, the measure would have to win nearly 100% of the vote -- a virtual impossibility. The petitioners are threatening legal action to challenge this provision of the state law, but it seems highly unlikely that such legal action would affect any results of this November's ballot. 
    Even if this initiative petition is filed with the state legislature as a home rule petition, it would still have to pass both houses of the legislature (highly improbable) and be signed by the governor (virtually impossible).
    Nonetheless, it looks like it will be an election issue.
Note: A Sept 9 Boston Globe article on this incorrectly stated that the requirement that one-third of all registered voters must vote in favor of a local initiative petition is a Cambridge law. It is, in fact, the state law. The Globe article also notes the following:
"The push to resurrect rent control comes after the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment fell by 9.2 percent to $1,725 in April, down from $1,900 in August 2002, according to the City of Cambridge's Housing Market Information Survey."
"The survey also noted that rents for a one-bedroom apartment dropped by 3.4 percent during the same period, to $1,400 from $1,450."

Text of the Initiative Petition to Regulate Rents and Evictions