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EFZ Rally Promotes Rent Control, Equity

By Frank Dabek

The Eviction Free Zone, a nonprofit housing advocacy group, named the ten worst landlords in Cambridge at a rally designed to promote awareness of rent control issues.

The fight for rent control hit a stumbling block this week, however, when the Cambridge Election Commission did not certify the ballot initiative of CCURE (Cambridge Citizens United for Rent Equity), another renter advocacy group.

At the rally, held in Central Square, a variety of speakers addressed a crowd of nearly 100 people, including City Councilor Ken Reeves and council candidates David A. Hoicka ’77, Eric Snowberg ’99 and James Williamson.

Jean Caldez, a resident of Porter Square, said that apartments “used to be your home... [but] not anymore.” Caldez said that condominium conversion is one of the problems facing renters. The “first home buy message is fine but it’s not for everyone,” she said, “some people can’t afford to do that.”

Steven Meechum singled out Jay Schochet, awarded the tenth worst landlord award, who controls 500 units of affordable housing and plans to raise rents according to Meechum. We’re “sick and tired of people making money off us,” Meechum said. He later led the crowd in a chant of “houses before profits.”

Participants at the rally carried signs with slogans ranging from “no profit at the expense of families” to “housing justice is race and class justice.”

MIT has role in housing crisis

Janice Zazinski, a member of EFZ, said that the presence of large universities in Cambridge complicates the housing situation. We “want to keep the city as friendly and low-density as possible but students have to go somewhere.”

Zazinski said that residents “blame students for coming in and pushing prices up.” She added, however, that the situation is “not the student’s fault.” The problem is “landlords taking advantage of students,” she said. Students should organize to fight rising rents, she said.

She said that additional on-campus housing will “take pressure off [the housing market], but rents will go up regardless.”

Hatch Steart, a member of CCURE, said that “universities are complicit as institutions.” Steart encouraged them to build more on-campus housing and reduce enrollment to match housing capacity.

CCURE initiative not approved

Also on Wednesday, the Cambridge Election Commission ruled that the CCURE ballot initiative to restore rent control in Cambridge failed to garner enough certified signatures to be placed on the ballot in November.

Hoicka, a CCURE organizer, said that the initiative fell about 100 signatures short of the approximately 4,600 signatures required.

The group has “lost the first round,” Hoicka said, but hopes to add the issue to the ballot through legal action. The group aims to purge the voting rolls of ten to twenty thousand people who no longer reside in Cambridge. Since the number of signatures required to place an initiative on the ballot is eight percent of registered voters, reducing the voter rolls could put the initiative over the required limit.

The group hopes that the court will order the registrar to remove the contested names from the register.

In a letter to the Registrar of Voters Hoicka submitted a list of 11,399 names of people whom he believes are no longer residents of Cambridge.

Steart said that he knew of 5,229 former residents who had verified their changes of address with the postal service. “We’d be on the ballot now if we lived in a democracy,” Steart said of the election commission’s inability to purge the rolls quickly.

An additional list submitted by Hoikca contains the names of several thousand students who haven’t voted in seven months and “appear to have graduated,” he said. Hoicka said that he was “all in favor of them (students) voting,” but wants “to weed the dead wood out of the data base.” Hoicka mentioned that MIT and Harvard are required to submit lists of active students to the election commission but have failed to do so in recent years.

The local ballot initiative approach to restoring rent control is not universally accepted, however. Zazinski said that her group is in favor of a state-wide referendum in 2000. A local referendum will easily pass, she said, but the “political climate at the state house” is against rent control.

Even if the local initiative passes it could not become law without a ‘home-rule’ exception made by the state legislature. A defeat of the exception at the state level could be counter-productive, she said.