If Boston’s complaint was once no taxation without representation, today it might be no rent increase without a corresponding Consumer Price Index hike.
Case in point: The Consumer Price Index increased 3.2% this past year. However, the company that owns the building my husband and I live in raised rent by 11.5%.
In other words, our rent increase outpaced national growth.
I should say at the outset that we pay all our own utilities—everything from hot water to heat to a trash disposal fee—and the price of our apartment wasn’t abnormally low when we moved in a year ago. We have always paid our rent on time and our neighbors in the building also experienced large increases, some even greater than our own.
So why did our rent increase so much? For the same reason that the British government taxed Americans as much as they could—because they wanted the money. Because they knew people would pay it.
And let it be known that we Bostonians already pay quite a bit for the bedrooms, kitchens, and balconies we call home. Forbes recently ranked Boston as the 10th most expensive rental city in America: In Nashville, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $796; in Atlanta, it’s $860; in Boston, it’s $2071. The cost of living here is 240% beyond the national average.
Moreover, recently Marcus and Millichap estimated that in 2011, Boston rents would reach all-time highs—with an average increase of 4.5%—because lower construction rates, higher energy costs, and fewer homebuyers all are ingredients in the perfect raising rent brew. The demand for apartments is there, even if salaries are not.
Now I’m not an economist—I’m an Episcopalian priest with a dilated pupil where social injustice issues are concerned—and while money isn’t my area of expertise, dubious ethics are. With the economy stagnating, with record unemployment, and with many young people on strained budgets moving into apartments to enroll as students in one of this area’s 40-plus universities, we the renters should be angry at landlords for achieving record profits when the rest of the nation is experiencing record losses.
Put differently, the vulnerability of renting Bostonians is being manipulated by those who provide a basic human need: Many in the nation’s historically rebellious city rent because they are transient, young, or unable to buy due to economic hardships caused by the recession or the exorbitant cost of living in this part of Massachusetts. This year, record numbers are renting out of financial necessity or geographic instability. Landlords know this. For them to raise their prices above the Consumer Price Index is no less exploitative than price gouging for gasoline or milk.
Now, I’m not going to turn this op-ed into an apologetic for rent control. While that might help with the pragmatic issue of stabilizing rent, it doesn’t change the mindset of those in power: Like mandatory volunteering, it doesn’t compel a change of heart. Rather, I’m advocating for a different kind of revolution, a kind in which the eyes of individuals and companies like the one who owns my apartment building open wide enough to see that that there is value beyond monetary gain. There is currency in wanting what is best for your customer. There is worth in moderate—instead of maximum—profit if it means that the consumer can experience some prosperity as well.
You may be asking whether my husband and I signed a lease for the coming year, given our animosity about the price hike. Initially, we refused—not just because it meant tightening our purse strings until they almost ripped apart—but because we didn’t want to support a company that placed its own economic gains ahead of shelter for its consumers. But we also knew that the cost of moving and the need for a car if we left the area would cost more than the 11.5% increase would.
And so we’re staying, at least for the short-term. But in the evenings, we dream of relocating to Nashville—or at least of going down to Boston Harbor, throwing some tea into the water, and begging for our voices to be heard.