Or: fun with Boston Globe comments
Most everyone has had the experience of reading something particularly enraging in the comment area below many online newspaper articles. I think it’s quite normal to feel frustrated and helpless in that situation. Because the nastiest opinions often appear to be the most popular ones. And there doesn’t always seem to be an effective way to counter them. Certainly not as an individual. Matters are made even worse when there is clearly an organized campaign by a well-funded network to push a common line against a less well-funded community of interest… in an attempt to make it seem like there is more public support for that group’s opinion than there really is.
Which is exactly what I noticed going on in the comment section of a recent Boston Globe piece (“Rent control gets a second look in Cambridge”) on the growing debate over the possibility of the state legislature passing a proposed bill that would allow Mass municipalities to introduce rent control for the first time since a real estate industry funded referendum question banned the reform statewide in 1994. It was quite clear that said industry had put the word out to its network of landlords to jump on the article and leave lots of comments.
When I first read a dozen or so of the resulting attacks on anyone that believes government should have a role in regulating rents, my initial reaction was to get mad and start yelling at the screen for a few seconds about the injustice of it all. Especially since the article was framed around the opinions of the industry front group most visible in the effort to eliminate rent control—which the Globe apparently feels bound to quote in virtually every article about housing.
Then I remembered that I’m a journalist and co-own a weekly newspaper. And that I can actually use that platform to reach an appreciably larger audience than will usually read a workaday Globe policy backgrounder—let alone its comment thread. As I did a month back when I wrote a column unequivocally supporting the return of rent control that went a bit viral among Boston-area tenants and our allies.
So, I thought it would be fun to reprint a few of the typical comments by landlords (and wannabes?) to the piece in question, and then respond to them as I would in open debate in any public forum. Focusing on engaging the best points on offer that rehearse standard real estate industry PR without stooping to pure invective.
4/29/19 – 10:32AM
Loss of rent control was one of the best things to happen to the Boston area. It increased the tax base enormously, allowing the improvement of existing housing stock, the creation of new housing stock, and the expansion/improvement of other city services.
Each municipality is simply the creation of the state, which has full sovereign authority to regulate, merge, or dissolve any village, town, city, or county. If the state says “jump”, then municipalities must respond “how high?”
The answer to high housing costs is to increase supply, as much as possible. To do that, zoning restrictions need to be relaxed.
It’s a question of perspective, jondi5. If you’re part of the small group of landlords, developers, and financiers that have benefitted handsomely from the destruction of rent control, then naturally you will believe what you say to be true. In the face of all evidence to the contrary. And, yes, each municipality “is simply the creation of the state.” But that cuts both ways.
In 1970, the state legislature voted to allow municipalities over 50,000 population to enact rent control regulations. If your whole “jump” and “how high” reasoning holds true, then the real estate industry should not have spent vast sums to push a binding referendum question to eliminate rent control. So, clearly that’s not much of an argument, and housing advocates have every right to push state government to reverse that referendum.
The state, in a democratic society, ultimately represents the will of the people, right? Not special interests like the real estate industry that put their own endless drive for profit over the good of the larger community time and time again. Although it’s true that sometimes higher levels of government have to act against majority opinion to protect a minority group. Yet landlords and your ilk are hardly the equivalent of black sharecroppers in the 1950s, now are you? You’re a rich and powerful group of capitalists seeking to get more rich and powerful off the backs of a legion of tenants struggling to make ends meet. And you deserve to be regulated in the public interest.
However, we agree that more housing has to be built. A no-brainer given the crushing need. It’s just that I think more social housing needs to be built in huge amounts by government at all levels—plus there must be significant public incentives created for co-operative and nonprofit housing developments. And you’re a supporter of Gov. Charlie Baker’s flawed plan to relax zoning restrictions to let commercial developers build more housing—even though little of that housing will be affordable by any metric, no matter what developers promise now. Check out what Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge) has to say on that issue for full background.
4/29/19 – 10:15AM
Rent control is state-sanctioned taking of property that benefits those who get the rent-controlled apartments…and is a serious and long-lasting punishment of everybody else who doesn’t get one of the limited supply, a supply that will NEVER increase in a rent-controlled environment. Ask yourself who in their right mind would willingly build a rent-controlled apartment when they can build somewhere else and not suffer the outside control. If you are happy with the supply for a few decades, then go right ahead and redistribute the wealth. But if you want more housing, this is precisely the wrong direction.
In addition, rent controlled apartments degrade far more than those where the market forces can keep the quality up. So get ready for some seriously ratty buildings with just-barely-legal upkeep. Again, what do you expect?
No, TJBowman, rent control is not the state-sanctioned taking of property. You are completely incorrect, and have not bothered to learn about the topic in question before commenting on it. And your argument on the people who get rent-controlled apartments punishing those who don’t is specious. By that logic, unionized workers negotiating a better deal than non-unionized workers in the same industrial sector amounts to the former “punishing” the latter rather than a societal advance (a talking point I’ve certainly seen right-wingers like yourself use before, unsurprisingly) and an inspiration to non-unionized workers to unionize.
You are also wrong that new housing wasn’t built under rent control. In the three cities that had it prior to 1994—Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge—new construction was exempt from the regulation. As to why anyone would build new housing under rent control in those locales, it’s because they’re in the major population center of this region. Where most of the jobs are. But I really love your line about “rent controlled apartments degrad[ing] far more than those where the market forces can keep the quality up.” The main reason any apartments degraded under rent control was because they were owned by slumlords who didn’t want to spend any of the profits they were definitely still allowed to make under the reform system on basic upkeep and repairs. That was certainly the case in the rent-controlled rooming house I lived in. But when rent control was defeated, my building was suddenly fixed up in a matter of weeks, in advance of jacking all the tenants’ rents and pushing us out.
Weird that our poor oppressed landlord suddenly had disposable income to make that happen, right? What with the “lack of profits” and all… under that evil “communist” rent control system. Puuuhleeze.
4/29/19 – 10:16AM
You could make it a local issue but renters should not be able to vote on the referendum. Who wouldn’t vote to lower their rent at the expense of the property owner?
So you think it’s cool to deny renters their right to vote, ArmySteve? Even homeless people have the right to vote (made needlessly difficult in some states and “territories,” but nonetheless there) in the US. Why not say that landlords—who, after all, do nothing but extract profit as rentiers (people who live on income from property or investments), rig the political system to their own advantage, and distort the economy to prevent the production of needed housing for working families—should not be able to vote on any housing referendum? Yeah, I thought so…
4/29/19 – 10:25AM
If your rent is too high, move to a suburb where rents are lower and commute. It is not your God given right to live in walking distance from your favorite bistro.
Neither is it your God-given right to be a landlord, ArrDee, and make a profit off a basic human need for decent housing that is also a basic human right. Actually, it’s funny that you mention God at all. Since essentially all monotheistic religions believe their God to be the champion of justice and fairness for the entire human race.
To give an example you’re doubtless familiar with, the Bible has that nice line, “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). And follows it up with an even better line about who gets into Heaven: “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). Pretty much all polytheistic religions, pantheist religions, animist religions, and religions that are debatably either atheist or a mix of theist and atheist also have this ethical core. Yet religious practitioners and possessors of a straight atheist worldview alike seem united in their ability to jettison such inconvenient ideas in the name of profit. More’s the pity.
Anyhow, we’ll continue this little tête-à-tête when you’ve personally built a decent cheap public transportation system that goes far enough in the ‘burbs to allow working class people to find rents low enough to be affordable, but is fast enough to allow them to get to work in under an hour each way—at any time of week, day or night.
Are you a tenant with a few choice words for landlords? Feel free to send opinion articles on the topic to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.