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Judge orders Rent Board to collect evidence

By Niraj S. Desai

A Middlesex Superior Court judge has ordered the Cambridge Rent Control Board to collect new evidence before deciding whether to grant MIT removal permits for five rent-controlled houses on Blanche and Green Streets.

Judge Robert Hallisey's action on Tuesday overruled the board's Feb. 1 decision to exclude the impact of MIT's University Park development from its deliberations on the case. MIT and its developer, Forest City Enterprises, plan to build a hotel and conference center -- part of the $250 million development -- on the site of the houses.

Hallisey ordered the board to hold a fact-finding hearing soon in which tenants would be allowed to present evidence of the negative impact of University Park on affordable housing in the city. Only after that hearing could the rent board vote on whether to grant the permits, which would enable MIT to demolish three of the houses and move the other two in order to make room for the hotel/conference center.

The rent board had actually granted MIT the removal permits last spring, but that action was vacated by an October court decision. Judge Joseph Mitchell ruled at the time that the board violated proper procedures by excluding evidence of the negative impact of the development on housing, while at the same time allowing evidence of the positive impact. Mitchell ordered the board to hold a fact-finding hearing on the negative impact before making a decision on the permits.

On Feb. 1, the rent board tried to comply with Mitchell's order by voting to exclude evidence of both the negative and positive impacts of University Park -- without holding a fact-finding hearing. Tenants argued that the board, by not holding a hearing, had flouted Mitchell's order. They filed a legal complaint, and on Tuesday Hallisey agreed with them.

Hallisey's action cancelled a hearing scheduled for Wednesday night in which the rent board was supposed to review and possibly vote on MIT's petition for removal permits.

The fact-finding hearing, which Hallisey limited to two and a half hours, has not been scheduled yet.

"I hope that the rent board will get back to being a [neutral] party in the case," said William S. Noble, one of the tenants. Noble believed that the board had been trying too hard to accomodate MIT's wishes in its previous actions.

Noble's sentiments were echoed by John L. Mason Jr., an attorney representing two of the tenants. At times, "it felt like it was two against one," Mason said, meaning the tenants were on one side, and MIT and the rent board on the other.

The board ruled two weeks ago that University Park's effect on the city's housing was not relevant to the case, and could do so again even after the new fact-finding hearing is held. But Noble hoped that the evidence produced by that hearing would compel board members to rethink their positions on the relevance of the development to the case.

Mason rebutted the argument that granting the removal permits and University Park's impact on city housing are separate issues. MIT wants to remove the houses in order to make way for the development, and it is the rent board's mission to try to preserve the city's affordable housing stock, he said.

MIT spokesman Ronald P. Suduiko said it was up to the board to decide whether evidence of University Park was relevant. But he added that MIT's plans, rather than hurting the city's housing stock, would make a strong contribution. Suduiko pointed out that, if granted the removal permits, MIT would, in one way or another, replace the twelve rent-controlled apartments in the five houses with eighteen rent-controlled apartments. Suduiko also noted that 400 housing units are scheduled for inclusion in the University Park development.