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Rent control vs rat control
This week some councilors got to business, some kept doin' the same old silly nonsense
This week offered us a good glimpse into what the next two years are going to look like on the City Council. Some of ‘em got busy and did good things, most of them have reverted to the same old trivial bologne. What follows is a tale of two Tuesdays and a tale of two different approaches to the position of city councilor.
Late morning into afternoon Tuesday, I listened in on a hearing at the Statehouse regarding a set of bills that would usher in rent control and other measures to curb the obvious and dire housing crisis we’re experiencing, both here in Worcester and across the state.
Councilors Etel Haxhiaj, Thu Nguyen and Khrystian King joined hundreds of concerned citizens and lawmakers across the state in pressing for the passage of the bills. The hearing stretched for more than seven hours.
Haxhiaj eviscerated the whole Worcester Renaissance marketing pitch in just a few sentences.
“If we have no tools at our disposal, to have a thoughtful discussion with renters and landlords, we will keep witnessing a violent speculative market where high rents become a sentence to poverty, housing instability and homelesnsess.
In Worcester, we don’t even have basic measures like inclusionary zoning, or anti-displacement policies to keep people in their homes. We just have dwindling rental assistance and overworked housing workers. We’re seeing not only a dramatic rise in rents, we’re seeing an influx of luxury housing being built, and speculators rushing in to turn multi-family housing into high-rent traps for those who can’t afford them. What we are witnessing right now is an upward race to charge the highest rents for profit, and a falling to the bottom of those who are squeezed tight between poverty wages and an unchecked market. How am I supposed to support the young children in my kids' school, and across our neighborhoods, who shouldn’t have to worry about where they’re going to put their head at night?”
Nguyen spoke passionately and from the heart about people in their community struggling with housing.
“Some people, no matter how much they work, how many hours, how many people in their families work, they still can’t afford rent,” they said.
King’s statement was two-pronged. A real estate market unchecked will damage Worcester’s economy by way of displacing its workforce, he said, and housing instability contributes greatly to mental health problems, straining a healthcare system and a social safety net that is already overburdened.
“The hierarchy of need is very clear,” he said. “You need a home base to mount those life challenges.”
I felt proud to hear Worcester officials out there pushing for the change our city so badly needs. The road to rent control is far from over. The bills still need to move out of committee, to the full Legislature for a vote, and they have to pass the governor’s desk without a veto. It’s not a sure thing it’ll happen. Not by a long shot. But it could, and if it does, Nguyen, Haxhiaj and King helped make it happen. We had Worcester councilors out front pushing for policy that will help real Worcester people who are struggling.
Then, come the evening, I had to watch the Worcester City Council meeting, where it was, um, not so high-minded or righteous. Frankly it was fucking stupid, and in a way I’m depressingly used to seeing over the years. The councilors basically had a pitch session where they bandied about some of the worst ideas you’ve ever heard and the manager sits there politely until he’s called upon to say that his administration is either already doing that or it can’t do that but you know ‘I hear your concern, councilor, and we’ll see what we can do.’ This week, the majority of the time was eaten up talking about… how there’s rats and trash in the city. You know. The pressing issues.
It was quite jarring, after hearing Thu, Haxhiaj and King use their bully pulpit to push for real and effective housing solutions, to then watch Councilor Kate Toomey talk about how it would be fun if we brought a company in (that she definitely just saw in clickbait article on Facebook) to build tiny houses.
Boom problem solved! Let them have tiny homes!
And then to watch Donna Colorio formally ask the city manager for information that is easily googleable….
Here you go, Donna! Could have been an email!
And watch Sarai Rivera ask the city manager to do something he already does routinely and has been for two years now…
And watch Moe Bergman try to convince the manager to get the city into the gift card business…
The meeting, which went on for almost three hours, was a complete waste of everyone’s time. It was more excruciatingly boring than the 7-hour Statehouse hearing on housing which preceded it, and it produced nothing of substance.
It couldn’t be more clear, going from the hearing to the council meeting, how we’re now dealing with two different classes of city councilors. There’s King, Haxhiaj and Nguyen out here understanding the problems Worcester is facing—who want to actually do something with their power—and then the rest, content to prattle on about the durability of trash bags and oh hey uhhh, what if we just built really small houses like these tiny houses I saw online for all the people who don’t have houses? Wouldn’t that be neat?
I’ve been following the Worcester City Council for a few good years now and I regularly talk with people who’ve followed the body a good deal longer. It’s not a stretch to say—and I’m not the first person to say—that the councilors have historically seen themselves more or less as public customer service representatives. It’s their job, as they see it, to relay the routine issues that come along with city life, like litter, rodents, potholes and parking. They don’t propose solutions, they request that the city manager come up with something. The city manager comes up with something at his own discretion, more or less. Save for some blowhard right wing provocateurs like Mike Gaffney, they’ve been content to leave questions of political vision and direction up to the city manager, who controls most of the meaninful levers of power in our Plan E system anyway. The City Council should be something of a board of directors to the City Manager, setting priorities and expectations and judging him on his ability to accomplish them. They really have not done this at all. I’m not going to blow up the spot of the person who first told me this but the Worcester City Council has basically just been a hobby for bad real estate agents and even worse lawyers.
What we saw with Nguyen, Haxhiaj and King at the Statehouse was something different. They took the initiative and they fought for something they believed in. They articulated a vision and a clear political priority. Over these next few years, I think the best thing these three can do is articulate a different modus operandi for a sitting councilor. Try to win some of the current councilors over to their way of doing things and open up a lane for people in the future to run on similar platforms. Plant the seed of what a new progressive coalition could do with a majority on the board. So let’s freakin go!
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk briefly about the housing problem here in Worcester and how rent control could help it.
Across the state rents have increased some 55 percent across the board since 2010. In Worcester the problem is particularly bad because we have an incredibly tight housing market at the lower- and mid-income levels and a lot of vacancy at the highest levels because the only thing we’ve been building is “luxury” apartments. Meanwhile the average selling price of a home in Worcester has shot from $180,000ish in 2013 to $343,000, according to Zillow. It’s a really good time to be buying multi-family houses in Worcester if it’s your intent to flip them. Like this Brian Allen guy featured in a recent Worcester Business Journal article on “luxury housing.” His firm, WorcesterMulti bought 43 triple deckers in the past year. This is what he tells the Worcester Business Journal.
“All of this stuff drives your investor into buying the worst house and making it look really pretty,” said Allen. “They're lipstick on a pig. They're better than the other Worcester apartments that they’re competing against. They're never going to be 145 Front.”
But he’s that investor! That’s what he’s doing! And the rents for triple deckers are really not that much lower than the new-construction luxury buildings, because there’s a supply demand imbalance and because there’s no cap on what landlords can charge.
Rent control is the cap. Rent control makes it harder for real estate speculators like Allen to flip houses. Rent control prevents a runaway train of property value increases that put people out.
We need it yesterday, and only as a stopgap. What we really need is more housing that’s built for people who live here and not for the people that city hall wished live here.
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In other news, the search for a new superintendent has begun! The city contracted a firm to conduct a national search. One of the most important decisions we’re going to make this year. Here’s some opportunities to get involved in the process.
What the hell is going on at Worcester Polytechnic Institute? Two more deaths over the holiday break bring the total up to six in the last year among the student body. Three of them are confirmed suicides.
And then there’s the giant hole in Shrewsbury Street that the dump truck fell into…
And then there’s the fake COVID testing site on Grafton St. that just gives anyone who goes in a negative result? Heard that’s getting shut down today.
What a wonderful week.
If you haven’t yet, check out the new podcast, W.G.B.H., which will come out on this substack and on Patreon.
Ok just a little short one today as I got some other stuff cookin’ in the proverbial oven. Til next time!