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Runaway rent in Paris. As rent control ends, Parisians cope with housing dilemma

`IF I have to leave this place, I'll leave Paris.'' Martine, a French researcher who has spent the last eight years in the same cozy, friendly apartment block, didn't look very happy at the prospect.

But for her, as for thousands of other Parisians, the alternative is to stay on a rent escalator that's heading through the roof.

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Since controls were lifted a year ago, Paris has become a renter's nightmare.

The result is changing the entire social face of the city - and, with it, much of Paris's Bohemian allure. Going or gone are the artists starving stylishly in garrets, the polyglot mix of working people, the craftsman's atelier - all within a few miles of the Champs 'Elys'ees. In come the young professionals and comfortable families.

In some ways the change reflects a trend - ``yuppiefication'' or ``gentrification'' - which is transforming many inner cities in the West. But it also stems from specific political decisions made by France's conservative coalition government, elected in 1986.

Parisians have long had a renting mentality. ``Unlike many other European cities, Paris was never bombed during the Second World War, and it avoided major redevelopment afterwards,'' explains Claude Cohen, a housing historian.

Among the warren of little streets, courtyards, and passages that remained, apartments were plentiful and cheap. Rented accommodations started to dry up, however, after the Socialist government, elected in 1981, brought in the Quilles law, which made it harder to raise rents and evict tenants.

``The law was meant to help tenants, but it had some bad consequences,'' a housing rights adviser admits. ``Suspicious landlords kept apartments empty rather than risk losing control.''

When the conservatives regained power, Pierre Mehaignerie, the housing minister, began pursuing free-market policies.

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The Mehaignerie law, passed in December 1986, ended the rental paradise that had allowed many people to stay in beautiful old apartments at low rents under postwar legislation. Rents of these protected lodgings can now increase gradually to ``normal market levels.''

After 1995, new leases will have to be ``freely negotiated,'' and the owner will no longer have to justify the amount of notice given to a tenant.

The housing minister argues that only rent deregulation will restore the profit incentive for landlords and encourage more housing to be built or released on the market. This, in turn, will keep rents low.

``The only true protection we can give to tenants is to build more,'' he said recently on the influential French television program ``The Hour of Truth.''

If this is his aim, Mr. Mehaignerie can claim some success.

The skyline of northeast Paris is speckled with building cranes, where old working-class neighborhoods have been turned into redevelopment zones. Some are private developments. Others are partnerships with the City of Paris to build lower-cost housing projects.

The government is probably hoping that people will decide rent is too high and choose instead to become homeowners.

This would help fuel the property boom and enlarge its ``natural'' voting constituency. As the line of people waiting to view each new rented apartment grows longer and more competitive, more voices can be heard to say that it's time to buy.

But conditions for mortgages are stiff, and buying a home remains a minority option.

Mehaignerie insists that the law provides plenty of protection for tenants who find their rent increases unfair and that the rate of increase is not so high.

But critics and political opponents dispute the low official estimate given last autumn of an 8 percent average increase. The building boom, they say, is just driving ``normal market levels'' up and up.

They also claim that the chief beneficiaries of the boom are landlords and construction companies, traditionally important contributors to party funds.

The aim, says one tenant representative, is to ``clear the city of people with lower incomes and, of course, its immigrants.''

Even if this is not the aim, it is likely to be the effect.

``The people who are moved out of the development zones know they will not be among those who move back in,'' says Jean Blocquaux, a housing expert and researcher for the Socialist Party. ``It is often people in strongest housing need who are denied public accommodation, because they cannot guarantee a monthly income several times that of the rent.''

When the evictions start, so do the protests.

In Belleville, a working-class neighborhood, residents held a demonstration recently to try to stop their hostel's being pulled down.

The hostel, on the edge of a redevelopment zone, is making way for a public project, which will house 30 instead of the present 130 people. Current occupants, all Africans, will be rehoused much farther away - probably outside the boundaries of the city of Paris.

It is not just the poor and immigrants who fear they are being pushed out of their districts.

Martine is typical of many ordinary Parisians living in protected tenancies who cannot afford the jump in rent now being proposed - sometimes two or three times current rates over the next three years.

In her apartment block, tenants have formed an association. In unison, they have turned down the small lump sum offered as an incentive to move out, and they plan to take rent increases to the housing tribunal.

They are not alone.

The number of cases brought to the tribunal has shot up as fast as Paris rents. The battle for the future face of Paris has begun.

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