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Wu’s push for rent control 20 years in the making

Avery Bleichfeld

Mayor Michelle Wu’s rent stabilization proposal is the latest in a series of efforts in Boston spanning nearly three decades to reinstate some form of rent stabilization following a 1994 statewide referendum that disallowed rent control.

The new proposal, which has a long path in front of it through Boston’s City Council and the Massachusetts State House, would limit how much landlords could increase rents annually based on inflation. The proposal would permit increases of 6% higher than the federal Consumer Price Index and prohibit increases of more than 10%.

The proposal would exempt properties where landlords live alongside tenants, as well as new buildings for the first 15 years after they open. Under the proposal, rent control measures would be accompanied by “just cause” eviction protections for tenants, which require landlords to have sufficient reason to evict a tenant.

While the city had different forms of rent control in the 1920s and 1940s, the most recent ordinance in Boston was instituted in 1969. That ordinance — which had been proposed by Thomas Atkins, the first Black person elected to an at-large City Council seat — created the Boston Board of Rent Appeals, which began operations in early 1970. Tenants could oppose rent increases and seek decreases in their rents, but they had to file complaints with the board to get a rent reduction.

In 1972, the City Council voted in favor of a state rent control law that strengthened protections for Boston tenants. Under the state law, a landlord could not raise rents on any unit without being granted prior approval by the Board of Rent Appeals; tenants were no longer required to appeal their rent increases.

About 20 years later, a statewide referendum asked voters in Massachusetts if the state should prohibit rent control. In 1994, the referendum passed by a narrow margin, banning rent control statewide, with a 51% to 49% split of the votes cast on the measure.

At the time only three municipalities — Boston, Cambridge and Brookline — had rent control measures in place. Voters in those three municipalities voted against the measure by a substantial margin. Kathy Brown, executive director of the Boston Tenant Coalition, said she saw the referendum as an attempt by the real estate industry to get rid of rent control statewide after failed local attempts in the three municipalities.

“The real estate industry tried in each of those towns [Boston, Cambridge and Brookline] to do referendums and they kept on losing, because the people in those communities wanted to have some form of rent stabilization,” Brown said.

After the prohibition of rent control, Brown — who worked with the nonprofit City Life/Vida Urbana at the time — said organizers worked alongside the city to try to preserve as many protections as possible. Meanwhile, tenants faced raising rents.

“It was like a wave of people getting pushed out from rent increases and evictions. Tenants would call up [City Life/Vida Urbana] and say, ‘My landlord is raising my rent,’ and assumed they had these rights,” Brown said. “And it was like, ‘Actually, you just lost those rights.’ Unfortunately, a lot of tenants didn’t realize, and it was really horrible.”

Throughout the early 2000s, tenants and tenant coalitions in Boston continued to push for the reinstatement of rent regulation in the city. A 2004 proposed measure would have focused on tenants of large property owners, allowing them to contest rent increases of more than 10% and also instituting just cause eviction protections.

Despite efforts to compromise with small property owners, the proposed ordinance did not make it past the City Council, receiving support from just five of the 13 councilors.

Throughout the various regulations and proposals, details such as which properties would be affected and how much rents could change without regulation have been major factors in Boston’s discussion around rent regulation. Wu’s current proposal aims to tie the restrictions on rent increases to inflation in a given year, capped at 10% overall.

Former Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey, who served on the Council in the early 2000s and voted on a series of proposed ordinances concerning rent control, said the number of units covered was always a key question. Under Wu’s new proposal, triple-deckers and buildings in which the owner lives alongside residents would be exempt.

The earliest rent control law in Boston also exempted buildings containing three or fewer units, as well as luxury units — a classification determined by the number of bedrooms in a unit compared to certain price markers. In an effort to compromise with small property owners, the 2004 proposal would have exempted landlords with six or fewer units.

Beyond more clear-cut rent control measures, other more limited proposals that aimed to address issues surrounding rent also have found little success in Boston. In the mid-2010s, three years of efforts to overhaul the rent system in the city ultimately ended fruitlessly.

During that period, proposed legislation that initially took aim at tracking evictions in the city, creating just-cause eviction protections, and requiring mediation between landlords and tenants for any proposed rent increase of more than 5% eventually was pared down to the Jim Brooks Act, which in its final form would have served as little more than an eviction data collection tool.

The Jim Brooks Act passed the Boston City Council in 2017, though some of its supporters, like then-Councilor Andrea Campbell, thought the proposed legislation did not go far enough. The act failed to make it through the Massachusetts State House and never became law.

Michael Kane, director of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants, a statewide tenants union that works with low-income tenants in government-assisted housing, said his organization has been pushing for another proposed ordinance that would address rents in governmentally involved or formerly governmentally involved housing in the Boston area.

The proposed ordinance, which Kane said has gone to the Boston City Council repeatedly since 1996, would allow the city to regulate rents by requiring owners to renew expiring contracts with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in an effort to keep rents down for the lower-income residents of those properties.

Though the proposed legislation has made it past the City Council to the State House, it has not made it past the legislature to be signed into law.

Kane said he has made a pitch to the mayor’s office to include the provisions from the home rule petition focused on governmentally involved housing in her new rent stabilization proposal, but he has had little indication if it will be included.

“In theory you could have both pass, but it’d be better to have one big proposal that we all support,” Kane said.