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Repeal Of Rent Control A Leading Cause Of Gentrification In Greater Boston, Author Claims

Rising housing costs and new upscale apartment buildings have local residents concerned about displacement and gentrification. The new Acadia apartment complex in Chelsea is ready to house 34 families. (Courtesy of Neighborhood Developers)
Rising housing costs and new upscale apartment buildings have local residents concerned about displacement and gentrification. The new Acadia apartment complex in Chelsea is ready to house 34 families. (Courtesy of Neighborhood Developers)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Gentrification is a controversial trend gripping cities throughout the country, including in the Greater Boston area.

Some view the phenomenon as a positive, bringing more wealth and development to neighborhoods.

Others lament the side effects, like the displacement of lower-income tenants and minority residents from places like Jamaica Plain and Roxbury due to rising costs.

Matthew Schuerman is the author of “Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents.” He joined us to talk about gentrification in the Boston area — and how the repeal of rent control contributed to it.

Here are excerpts of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.


On Massachusetts as a study in repealing rent control

There are a lot of theories out there that the solution to unaffordable housing prices in places like Boston or New York or San Francisco is simply to get rid of rent control.

So here we have this real-life experiment where you got rid of rent control pretty quickly in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline. But not only did the rent control units go up, the market-rate units also went up. Once landlords could charge whatever they wanted for their units, they tended to spiff them up and tried to really go for the high-end market.

And then the next-door building that may not have been subject to rent control before were able to increase its rents, too, because, hey, the whole neighborhood was getting really nice.

On why bringing back rent control may not bring costs back down

Let's put it bluntly: If you put rent control across all of the units, you are just going to make it very difficult and unlikely that anyone would build new apartment buildings.

But if you do what's called partial rent control, that will at least protect the people who live in those units currently from, you know, excessive rent hikes. And that might be effective for saving them. Will that actually have some sort of impact on the general affordability? That's really hard. I think that you have to attack that [by] increasing the supply of housing at the same time.

On how to keep landlords from contributing to gentrification

Well, it is very possible that that would happen, and that's why New York City might be an instructive example. We imposed some rules in the 1990s that prohibited people making a certain level of income from living in a rent-regulated place.

You also might investigate whether there are discrimination laws in Massachusetts prohibiting discrimination based on income — certainly source of income, that is, if someone has a Section 8 voucher, that's, you know, the subsidy from the federal government, as it were. So, those might be steps that you might take to fashion rent control to be more equitable.

On how other cities have combated gentrification

Well, certainly affordable housing: build a building, let's say, have the government-subsidized in some way the construction of that building and the landlord voluntarily agrees to cap the rents. Another variation on that is something called the Community Land Trust, by which the city or a nonprofit would take possession of a building or a vacant parcel and then dictate that the rents in that building or the building to be built on the vacant land be capped at an affordable level.

It's also important to provide assistance in housing court to tenants who feel that they've been wrongly discriminated against and are facing unjust rent hikes or harassment to get them out of their units.

One thing that you should always keep in mind is that whenever you give a tax break or a subsidy to an apartment building, that neighborhood might become very desirable. You don't want to set up a situation where you provide an incentive to build a building and then take away any controls. That happened in New York City for a number of different incentive programs that only required a certain number of years for rent control to be in practice. And then, you know, at the end of that term -- 20 years, 30 years — lo and behold, the city is booming and those people have lost their leases and have been forced to move out.

On whether gentrification can ever be avoided

It's hard to say that gentrification could have been avoided. But one thing we could probably have done a much better job doing is predicting the effects of gentrification. That is what we call displacement — the wealthier people moving in and pushing out the poor people. It wasn't invented yesterday. It has a long history.

We should learn from what we've tried in the past. And we should be looking for places that have not gentrified yet but where we can do things like buy up the land and reserve it for affordable housing so that when it gets valuable, it's a much less expensive solution than what we are facing right now.

This segment aired on November 26, 2019.


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