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The 1994 Rent Control Initiative in Massachusetts: A Window into Voting Patterns in Cambridge

The 1994 Rent Control Initiative in Massachusetts: A Window into Voting Patterns in Cambridge

Howard Fain

In 1970 the Massachusetts Legislature passed legislation in response to a housing shortage that allowed communities to implement rent control procedures. Only three Massachusetts communities instituted and maintained rent control: Cambridge, Boston and Brookline.

It is generally recognized that Cambridge kept the most stringent controls; it is also the city in which a candidate's position on rent control is fundamental, if not absolutely primary, for most voters. Brookline modified its program to vacancy decontrol in the 1980s at a town meeting, but it has not been a defining issue in ongoing political debate. Boston had a modified rent control program, which also has not been an issue in political campaigns.

Until the statewide rent control question in 1994, there had been just one popular rent control vote in Cambridge: in 1989. There were municipal elections every two years, however, in which a majority of city councilors elected each time have supported the continuation of the rent control program. Cambridge has used the choice voting (aka preference voting) form of proportional representation since 1941.

The Cambridge Civic Association (CCA) is the most well established of the pro-rent control organizations endorsing candidates. Others include the Cambridge Tenants' Organization, which frequently cross-endorses CCA candidates, but has also endorsed candidates who are decidedly non-CCA on other matters but who also support rent control. At least one candidate who supports rent control, yet opposes the CCA is usually elected.

There are nine city councilors in Cambridge. At least five pro-rent control councilors have been elected in every election since its adoption -- and sometimes six -- even though sometimes the CCA has elected only four. The flip side, of course, is that there are generally four, or sometimes three, councilors elected who are opposed to the Cambridge rent control program.

Such consistent results make sense with choice voting elections, given that rent control is a defining out-front issue in Cambridge elections, and choice voting provides fair representation to all sides. This theory is borne out by closer examination of recent elections.


Measuring the Fairness of Choice Voting


In 1992 and 1993, the property owners tried a different tack. They went to court to challenge the rent control ordinance, and lost. They asked the state legislature to overturn or sharply amend the original enabling statute, and lost again.

They then began a drive to ban rent control statewide, through an initiative petition, and succeeded in gathering the signatures to place it on the 1994 state ballot. Although other real estate interests joined with them, Cambridge property owners played a major role: it was generally understood that Cambridge's system was the lightning rod for the entire process.

During the campaign, many in Boston and Brookline might have been surprised to learn that the ballot question would affect their communities. Not so in Cambridge, where the initiative was simply bringing the old war onto a larger battlefield. The fight for votes would happen elsewhere -- it was not likely that a lot of minds would be changed in Cambridge by this particular campaign.

In public statements, the Cambridge property owners explained their decision to bring their fight outside the city borders (going first to court, then legislature, and finally, initiative) because two-thirds of the city residents are tenants, and they had given up on ever seeing a majority of councilors elected who favored their position.

They compared their cause to federal civil rights enforcement: just because a local majority favors a position, and translates that into a majority of legislators who support the same position, does not make it right. Rent control proponents countered with support for the sanctity of home rule, beyond their belief that the system offered important protections for the city's population.

Both sides, then, expressed their belief that the majority of councilors elected under the choice voting system accurately reflected the wishes of a majority of the city's voters. Further, the pro-rent control majority was not just from one bloc, but accurately reflected the rent control feelings of both CCA and Independent (e.g., non-CCA) voters.

Both sides would also recognize that the system accurately reflected the wishes of the minority opposed to the rent control system. Among this continuously elected minority were some councilors quite virulent in their opposition to the Cambridge rent control program.

In 1989, a Cambridge-only Proposition to repeal rent control was defeated, 66% to 34%. In 1994, the rent control question, banning rent control in Massachusetts, was approved statewide with 51%, but again was rejected in Cambridge, 58% to 42%. Voters in Boston and Brookline also rejected the question, by narrower margins.

With some variations election to election, these results closely approximate the percentage of voters who support pro and anti-rent control candidates in Cambridge elections, either through first choice or later-transfer ballots.

Since imposition of rent control, council members supporting rent control have constituted between 55% (5 of 9), and 66% (6 of 9) of the council. In the elections surrounding the 1989 rent control question, it was generally six of nine councilors. The 66% support of rent control, as shown by the direct vote on the question, is right on target.

Some have noted that, approaching the 1993 elections, an incumbent non-CCA rent control supporter was hedging his support. He was re-elected, but his shift certainly parallels the diminished 58%-42% Cambridge vote for rent control on the statewide question in 1994.


Voter Flexibility


Choice voting elections in Cambridge accurately represent the interests of the city's voters. Since there always are more than just five or six candidates supporting rent control, the transfer process allows pro-rent control voters to delineate their choices along this line, and then select preferences based on any other matter, such as neighborhood association, general political alignments and race.

The same goes for the anti-side, whose consistent representation on the council, and thus in public debate, has been assured by the choice voting system. With at least 58-42% support for such a major issue (higher in the past), it is easy to imagine the pro-rent control forces having virtually swept all seats under majoritarian election systems.

Choice voting of course is neutral on questions of rent control -- as with any political issue or ideology. It simply allows voters to express their views more accurately by giving them more flexibility than the simplistic, all-or-nothing choices that voters usually have with winner-take-all systems.