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Activists see opening for new rent control law

Wu’s proposal comes amid push in Legislature

Isaiah Thompson
Activists see opening  for new rent control law
New England United for Justice Executive Director Mimi Ramos addresses demonstrators during a rally for rent control at the State House. PHOTO: Saraya Wintersmith

Hundreds of activists, organized under the banners of Homes for All Massachusetts and Right to the City Boston, gathered in front of the Massachusetts State House last Saturday to rally in support of legislative bills introduced in the state House and Senate last week that would lift the state’s decades-old ban on local rent control measures.

Organizers for the event called it the largest rally in support of rent control in at least the last four years.

And while the measures supporting rent control making their way now through the state legislature are not the first to be introduced in recent years, activists, lawmakers and local leaders are voicing new optimism and urgency over the possibility that rent control may finally be having its moment for the first time since it was banned statewide by a narrowly-passed 1994 ballot referendum.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu recently introduced her own long-anticipated proposals for rent stabilization in the form of a home-rule petition that would establish a cap on annual rent hikes for roughly half of the city’s rental units, according to Wu’s office.

Wu’s proposal, which must still be vetted and voted upon by Boston’s City Council, immediately drew fire from both supporters and opponents of rent control. Development and real estate interests sounded alarms and warned that such measures could cripple the city’s economy and hamper new building, while longtime proponents of rent control — including those who rallied at the State House this weekend — criticized Wu’s proposals as falling short of providing strong and broad enough protections to prevent working-class people from being further displaced from the city.

Meanwhile, last week saw state legislators introduce a handful of bills in the House and Senate aimed at lifting, in one form or another, the statewide rent control ban.

Activists who gathered outside the State House on Jan. 28 are explicitly backing and promoting one pair of bills that they helped draft, sponsored by Reps. Sam Montaño (Boston) and Dave Rogers (Arlington, Belmont, Cambridge) in the House, and Sen. Patricia Jehlen (Medford, Somerville, Winchester, Cambridge) in the Senate.

Those bills would lift the ban on local rent control and give municipalities across the Commonwealth the option of adopting a more-or-less uniform policy that would tie rent increases to the rate of inflation and, critically, impose a cap on rent increases of up to 5% per year. The bills would also define and prevent so-called “no-fault” evictions. The measures provide exemptions for homeowner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units, as well as units built after January 1, 2020, and new units for the next five years.

Montaño said the bills will protect renters for whom an unexpectedly sharp increase in rent could mean calamity and even homelessness.

“At the end of the day, a $200 or $300 [rent] increase is just outside of the means of the folks who are at the lowest income levels,” said Montaño. “The rent is already high. So we need a rent-increase maximum that will accommodate those most vulnerable to homelessness and eviction.”

Meanwhile, another pair of bills, introduced by Rep. Mike Connolly (Cambridge, Somerville) and Sen. Jamie Eldridge (Acton), would similarly end the statewide ban on local rent control measures, as well as allow towns and cities to introduce “just cause” protections from evictions and regulations on brokers’ fees — but does not prescribe a uniform cap on rent hikes.

Connolly, who introduced similar legislation in recent years, says the landscape has shifted when it comes to tenant protections.

“The current moment we face of affordable housing and homelessness emergency in the Boston area and in Massachusetts at large — this moment is without any precedent in modern history,” Connolly said. “And so I think it makes this kind of proposal very timely and very appropriate.”

Connolly points out that Massachusetts has allowed, and its municipalities have adopted, different kinds of rent control measures in the past.

“All you typically hear about is the history of rent control in Massachusetts from 1970 until the mid 1990s. But it’s been really fascinating to look into the history and realize that Massachusetts had rent control in the 1920s. We had rent control in the 1940s. It was in place again in the 1950s. It went away during that push for urban renewal. … And then it was right back in place again by 1970,” Connolly said.

The 1994 ballot referendum that ended the modern era of rent control in Massachusetts, Connolly says, was not only narrowly decided but was driven largely by municipalities that didn’t have rent control in the first place — “where there was really nothing at stake, because it wasn’t in place.” At that time, only Boston, Cambridge and Brookline had rent control in place.

And while the phrase “rent control” has come to be vilified by opponents — cast in some cases as a form of creeping socialism — such arguments, Connolly, says, do not reflect reality.

“If you’re going to be technical and exact about it, you know, rent control is a policy that’s very much aligned with capitalism,” Connolly said. “We’re talking about a proposal, but firmly grounded in … the notion that landlords will make a return on their investment.”

Activists who rallied outside the State House this weekend contend that landlords and real estate interests have already had too much say.

“Legislators need to be reminded that they’re here to serve the people of Massachusetts, and not real estate interests first,” said Gabriela Cartagena, a spokesperson for the Boston-based housing justice organization City Life/Vida Urbana.

“If legislators really care about Black working-class people, if they really care about Latino working-class people, if they really care about immigrants, about all working-class people, single mothers, the elderly, the disabled — we need them to act, and get as many people to get as many legislators to co-sponsor this rent control policy,” including the proposed 5% cap on rent increases, Cartagena said.

“Our community needs this to stay in Massachusetts,” she said.