Would Right of First Refusal Alleviate Cambridge’s Housing Crisis?

Groshun Johnson near Harvard Square on Feb. 16, 2018. Johnson said he commutes to Cambridge for work because he cannot afford to live in the city. Shane Rhodes/BU News Service

By Shane Rhodes and Marissa Wu
BU News Service

This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle

The Cambridge City Council recently voted to support a proposed state law that could have a major impact on the city’s housing market and its tenants. But the bill isn’t without opposition.

An Act to Preserve Affordable Housing Through a Local Option Tenant’s Right to Purchase, Bill H.3017, proposes to allow tenants to join together and purchase their residential building should their landlord decide to sell. Recently the bill — sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost — was sent to the committee on housing for study and did not advance in this session. Provost may re-file next session, but in the meantime cities are left hanging, according to Cambridge City Councilor Dennis Carlone.

“This leaves Cambridge and cities struggling with affordable housing to chart our own paths,” wrote Carlone in a column published last week in the Chronicle.

Carlone said he submitted a policy order Feb. 26, requesting a home rule petition to create a Right of First Refusal ordinance in Cambridge. “A local ordinance could ensure we have a law that allows exemptions to family members, provides a grace period for homeowners to negotiate with tenants and limits displacement,” he wrote.

According to Provost, Somerville also crafted a home rule petition based on the bill.

But not all councilors agree with the proposal.

“It is pitting tenants and landlords against each other, creating friction and potential collateral hardship,” Cambridge Councilor Tim Toomey said in an email.

However, the state bill received support from multiple political figures in Cambridge: Sen. Pat Jehlen and representatives Mike Connolly, Marjorie Decker and Dave Rogers all co-sponsored the bill.

If passed, tenants could combine their assets to match an offer on the building, or designate a third party, such as a nonprofit or residential cooperative, to do so. Currently, landlords are not required to listen to any proposed counter-offers and may sell to whomever they please.

But critics of the bill like Toomey note some may want to pass property to their children. Rather than deny owners this ability, Toomey said he thinks the city needs to “think boldly” and “outside of the box” in order to address the affordable housing crisis. He pointed to his proposal instructing the city to look into buying property on Brattle Street.

“I recently filed a City Council policy order that would require the city manager to confer with Lesley University and the Harvard Divinity School about acquiring use of the Episcopal Divinity School site,” Toomey wrote. “Although this could have provided more affordable housing, the proposal’s community response was a fierce backlash.”

Provost: Needs of community should outweigh free enterprise

Brendon Bernazzani, a realtor in the Central Square area of Cambridge, was also unhappy with the bill. While Bernazzani liked the core idea behind it, he believes it may infringe on the rights of a landlord and/or building owner.

“I think it’s great that the state is taking action to help prevent [displacement],” Bernazzani said. “But I do believe in free enterprise. Someone owns this property and a right to first refusal is obviously going to hinder their chances of selling easily.”

But Provost thinks the needs of communities should outweigh free enterprise.

“You get the benefit of not displacing people,” Provost said. “You assure people stay in the communities where they have connections and are not moved out to the periphery.”

Provost cited a recent Somerville sale that led to the displacement of numerous residents. Tenants found themselves scrambling, given little time by the new owner to relocate.

“The sad thing is, a lot of the multifamily buildings have sold recently and displaced large numbers of people,” Provost said. “It creates its own kind of hardship,” depriving residents of institutions, like churches, schools, and clubs, and vice versa.

Home prices are too high

While not all Cambridge regulars seemed to support the bill, last week several were in agreement that something should be done about the housing market.

Julia Halprin, who has owned her home and lived in Cambridgeport since 1989, said she believes housing is much less affordable now than it was when she bought.

“I’ve lived in apartments; I’ve rented in Cambridge; I’ve owned a rent-controlled building,” Halprin said. “I’ve had a lot of experience on both sides of the issue, and I still feel very strongly that the prices are too high.”

Lisa Brown, a resident of Inman Square, said “there is none,” when questioned about the state of affordable housing in the city. Brown also noted a lot of people, like herself, exist in an economic mid-range, where they are unable to truly afford Cambridge-priced housing but are not eligible to live in federally subsidized areas.

Groshun Johnson, who said he cannot afford to live in Cambridge and so commutes to the city for work, said he would “definitely support” a bill empowering tenants and possibly allow for affordable housing in the area.

Johnson noted that, even though Cambridge is expensive, if the renters of a building that is up for sale combined their savings, they might be able to buy and remain in the city.

“As long as everybody’s pitching in, that shouldn’t be a problem,” said Johnson. “It’s very costly to live in Cambridge.”

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