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Demand increases off-campus rents

By Katie Schwarz

Second in a series on issues affecting housing and class size.

The number of students who remain on campus is on the rise, due to the decrease in availability and increase in cost of off-campus housing, according to officials at MIT, Harvard University and Boston University.

"A high percentage of apartments have gone condo, and most rentals left are at least ten to 15 percent more [expensive] than last year," said MIT Administrator for Housing Service Linda L. Patton in an article in Tech Talk Sept. 4.

The number of housing listings the MIT Housing Service received from rental agents and landlords has dropped from 664 in 1982 to 392 this year, Patton said.

Boston's economic growth has caused demand for housing in the metropolitan area to rise rapidly for over a decade, said Peter Dreyer, a consultant for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, in a Sept. 4 article in Boston University Today.

Despite the efforts of the Cambridge City Council to preserve affordable housing in the city, "lots of forces are going on" to drive rents up, said Councilman David E. Sullivan '74.

There is less development of low and moderate income rental units because they are less profitable, Sullivan said. A steep rise in the cost of construction and materials since the early 1970s has forced housing developers to concentrate on the most profitable investments, he added.

Owner-occupied houses are more affordable than rented apartments, Sullivan explained, because federal income tax laws subsidize home ownership. Such houses are therefore more likely to be sold and thus more profitable for the developer, he continued.

"We need government to intervene" because the need for low and moderate income housing is not being met, Sullivan said. He urged MIT students to defend their interests by participating in city and local politics.

Cambridge attempts to ensure affordable housing chiefly through rent control, Sullivan continued. The city's rent control system is among the most effective in the nation, he added, but the "phenomenally hot" housing market can "overwhelm even substantial measures."

Only 17,000 of the 40,000 units of housing in Cambridge are subject to rent control, according to Sullivan. The remainder are one, two or three-family owner-occupied houses. Such houses are exempt from rent control and likely to remain so because homeowners constitute a large political force, he said.

It is important for the city to "hang onto" the 17,000 rent-controlled housing units, Sullivan said. An ordinance he wrote in 1979 prohibits rent-controlled apartments from being taken off the market by demolition or condominium conversion without the permission of the rent control board. Permission for conversion is difficult to obtain, he added.

Sullivan hopes to encourage the construction of more rent-controlled housing through a proposal he sponsored in City Council. Sullivan's "linkage" proposal would "link" large new developments to housing by requiring the developers to provide a certain number of units of low and moderate income housing. Such developments include Cambridge Center and MIT's planned development of the Simplex site.

Large developments create jobs, leading to increased demand for housing, Sullivan explained. Furthermore, these jobs are generally high-paying, and the people who take them can afford expensive housing, he added.

Major developments therefore drive up housing prices in their vicinity. Sullivan intends the linkage proposal to counteract this effect.

Sullivan's proposal recently failed a City Council vote. It was approved by six of the nine council members, one fewer than the number needed to pass.

Sullivan speculated that "but for MIT," the proposal would have passed. MIT "fought tooth and nail" against linkage, he said, as did Harvard.

Linkage is a proposal to change the city zoning laws. Such changes ordinarily need the approval of two-thirds, or six members, of the City Council. The proposal needs the approval of three-fourths, or seven members, of the council if the owner of 20 or more percent of the affected land protests.

The Simplex site owned by MIT constitutes more than 20 percent of the land affected by linkage.

Sullivan said he will introduce the linkage proposal again after the City Council election in November, when all council seats are being contested. He thinks it is "likely" that at least one additional supporter of linkage will be elected, and the proposal would then have a "good chance" of passing.