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RentBoard decides to exclude UPark evidence

By Niraj S. Desai

The Cambridge Rent Control Board voted last Wednesday to exclude evidence of the impact of the University Park development when it decides whether to grant MIT a removal permit for five houses on Blanche and Green Streets. The move appears to be a setback for community groups who claim that MIT has not shown enough concern for the houses' tenants or for the city's housing needs.

The houses are on the site of a 350-room hotel and conference center, part of MIT's University Park project.

In March, the board granted MIT's request for a permit to remove the 12 apartments -- four of which are occupied -- in those houses from the rental market. But that ruling was vacated by Middlesex County Court Judge Joseph Mitchell in October. The judge found that the board had used incorrect procedures when it excluded evidence of the negative impact of the development on low- and moderate-income housing in the city. Wednesday's hearing was held in response to that ruling.

William S. Noble, one of the tenants, said that a legal complaint was filed yesterday against the board's Wednesday decision.

Mitchell also found in October that the process had been compromised at the original hearing because two different proposals were considered. MIT had initially offered to provide 12 rent-controlled apartments and six market-value apartments in exchange for the removal permit. But the board ruled that it would only grant the permit if MIT changed its petition to make all the apartments subject to rent control. MIT agreed, but opponents argued that they had not been allowed sufficient opportunity to respond to the revised petition.

As a result, another hearing will be held on Feb. 15 for the board to hear the revised petition again. At that time, the board might regrant MIT the removal permit which would allow it to demolish three of the houses and move the other two.

At Wednesday's hearing, John L. Mason Jr., an attorney representing one of the tenants, argued that Mitchell had ordered the board to send the case to a hearing examiner who would collect evidence on the impact of University Park on the city's housing. Instead, the board decided to hold a hearing in which it asked opponents of the removal permit to present proof that there was sufficient reason to collect such evidence.

"We object to the procedure," Mason told the board. He charged that the board was deliberately ignoring the judge's instructions. "The court's order speaks for itself ... the court does require a fact-finding hearing." He added that it was inappropriate for the board to ask the tenants for offers of proof. The complaint filed yesterday seeks to find the board in contempt of Mitchell's ruling.

MIT's attorney, Scott Lewis, countered that the tenants "have never offered any coherent argument that if given proof [of the housing impact] that you would decide differently [than the board did in March]."

Board chairwoman Ellen M. Semonoff said that Mason's objections were legally irrelevant, and that Mitchell had explicitly upheld the board's right to exclude the evidence. She also believed that, even if proof of the negative impact of University Park were admitted, it would have no bearing on the case.

Sally Ackerman and Fred Cohn, the two landlord representatives on the five-person board, joined Semonoff in deciding that no fact-finding hearing was required.

Noble said yesterday that the board was "railroading" MIT's removal permit through. The board, as the object of the tenants' October suit, now finds it difficult to remain a neutral party, Noble charged. Rather it is acting as an "accomplice" in trying to secure the permit, he continued.

A hearing officer should be allowed to report on the housing impact of University Park, and make recommendations regarding the removal permit with this information in mind, Noble said. If this were done, the board might be forced to reconsider granting the permit.

MIT spokesman Ronald P. Suduiko had not received a Notice of Ruling from the board on its Wednesday night action as of yesterday, and he declined to speculate on the meaning of the decision. He did reiterate the MIT position that it has mitigated the hardship on tenants and that the city's housing stock would be helped by the plan.