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MIT sues rental board

By Joanna Stone

The question of whether the Cambridge Rent Control Board maintains certain inherent rights was considered at a Middlesex County Court hearing on Friday as yet another chapter unfolded in the seemingly never-ending saga of the fate of University Park and the Blanche Street houses.

The issue of inherent rights held by the board was considered in connection with the suit filed by MIT against the Cambridge Rent Control Board. MIT is suing the board over its recent decision to delay issuing certificates of eviction for the MIT-owned houses located on Blanche Street.

The board decided about three weeks ago to delay the eviction certificates "until MIT presents evidence to the [Rent Control Board's] executive director that it has secured financing of the development proposed for the subject sites."

The attorney representing MIT, Scott P. Lewis of the Palmer

and Dodge law firm, argued that "this was not part of the board's original agreement." Lewis said that the end of the already drawn-out litigation concerning the Blanche Street houses was being further postponed by this additional request.

Permits granted, but

with conditions

In June of 1989, after nearly a decade of hearings and debates, the Rent Control Board granted MIT removal permits for the Blanche Street houses. The board approved MIT's relocation of the buildings to a site 1000 feet away from their present location, on the condition that MIT agree to pay for interim housing for the tenants and on the conditional basis that MIT provide 12 additional rent control units to the city.

"There are no cases that I'm aware of in which the Cambridge Rent Control Board extracted so much housing benefits" as they have from the development of University Park, Lewis said.

"The board made an agreement, we've lived up to our side of it, we've provided all that they requested and now they're asking for more," Lewis said.

A building was constructed on Brookline Street, on the perimeter of University Park, for the purpose of providing six rent controlled units. Also, six units from other MIT-owned housing were converted to rent control units.

All 12 units are now occupied by low-income tenants, who were taken from waiting lists for Cambridge public housing, according to Lewis. In addition, MIT has supplied tenants with a list of temporary relocation provisions, including several hotels to choose from, Lewis said.

Board says its

request is small

The attorney for the Rent Control Board, Patricia A. Cantor, retorted that the board was not changing its original decision, only requesting a "mere detail" from MIT before granting the certificates.

According to Lewis, the problem with MIT providing the Rent Control Board with this "mere detail" -- evidence of financial backing for University Park -- is that the financial commitment of the Sheraton, the hotel planned for the site, is still pending. Lewis noted at the hearing that the Sheraton would like more certainty that the land will be vacated before it commits itself financially.

Cantor argued that the delay incurred by the request for evidence would pose no real harm to MIT. The judge hearing the case, Wendi I. Gershengoran, interjected, "the harm to MIT is the falling through of the project. The people MIT is dealing with want security," she said.

Cantor said that MIT had it in its power to provide the evidence itself. "We were surprised we didn't receive [the evidence of financial backing] back on January 25 [the day after the request was made]," she said.

But, Gershengoran said, the fact that MIT had it in its power to finance the entire project itself is irrelevant. She said it was never part of the agreement that MIT be "on the hook for several million dollars should the deal not go through."

According to Ronald P. Suduiko, assistant to the president for government and community relations, the financial backing issue no longer rests in MIT's hands. "The land has been leased to a developer, Forest City. The issue of backing falls to the developer," he said.

Tenants' hardship

is a consideration

Cantor stressed throughout the hearing that the Rent Control Board had not changed its original decision. She said the board believed that a delay would be prudent to insure that a hardship not be incurred upon tenants unnecessarily.

When the board made its original agreement, "it was always assumed that something would go on that site," said Cantor.

Lewis insisted that the tenant's hardship "had already been included into the calculus." According to Lewis, the Rent Control Board had said in its original decision that it would issue the certificates of eviction as soon as MIT met with its conditions.

Gershengoran questioned this aspect of the case. "So `would' at that point meant `would, unless we change our mind?' " she asked Cantor. "So, you're arguing inherent authority [to change your mind]."

Cantor insisted the board's additional request was within its authority. "In the context of Valentine, we defer it to the board's discretion," she said.

Peter Valentine, a resident of Blanche Street for over 20 years, has been called on in the past to represent the intangible hardship that will be suffered by tenants due to a relocation that could, in the end, have no purpose.

In a board hearing this fall, Valentine began his testimony

by stating that he could not be moved from his home because he was currently in karma with his energy fields and relocation might jeopardize this karma.

This speech was accompanied by unadmitted evidence, including a bag of gray hair which Valentine claimed had been his own and a display of other hairs which he said showed he had found a way to turn gray hair back to its original color without the use of chemicals, "in other words, to reverse the aging process."

Valentine claimed that if research like his were occurring at MIT, all efforts would be made to accommodate the researcher. He believes that he must remain at his current residence, in its current location, in order to continue his research.

In their decision two weeks ago that prompted the MIT suit, the board said, "Given the severe disruptive effects of relocation the board was genuinely concerned that that not occur, unless and until the development was going to materialize."

Judge Gershengoran's decision on the case of MIT's suit is expected sometime this week.

A history of controversy

The controversy over the Blanche Street houses began about a decade ago, when three MIT-owned three-story buildings located on Blanche Street were left vacant and uninhabitable.

The buildings gained the public spotlight in 1988 when protesters constructed a "Tent City" on MIT-owned land and asked MIT to allow them to renovate the houses so that the homeless could live in them.

People claimed that MIT had purposely allowed these houses to deteriorate in order to remove them from the rental market and vacate the land, in an attempt

to expedite the development of University Park.