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Councilors debate Wu’s rent stabilization petition

Isaiah Thompson
Councilors debate Wu’s rent stabilization petition

Boston City Councilors are drawing lines in the sand over a raft of measures put forward by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu in a home rule petition on rent stabilization.

In a hearing spanning several hours, the mayor’s proposals received their first public airing before the Council, the body in which the home rule petition must pass by a majority vote before being sent to the state legislature for possible approval.

Wu’s home rule petition would impose an annual rent increase cap — up to 10%, depending on the annual consumer price index — for qualifying rental units, excluding smaller homeowner-occupied buildings and new construction for the first 15 years. Under Wu’s proposal, about 55% of all rental units citywide would qualify for rent control, according to figures provided by her administration. The petition would also provide other new tenant protections, including certain provisions protecting tenants from no-fault evictions, which landlords have commonly used to clear out buildings for higher-paying renters.

Out of the gate, Council members showed a stark divide in their reception to the petition. Some members voiced a clear reluctance to move forward with the mayor’s proposals; others signaled that while they support the goals of the petition, they feel it does not go far enough to protect tenants and working-class families.

The divide among Council members appeared to reflect an increasingly common trend on the Council, with four of the Council’s more conservative members, all Irish-American, aligned against the measure.

Expressing skepticism were at-large Councilors Michael Flaherty and Erin Murphy and Council President Ed Flynn. (District 3 Councilor Frank Baker, who has expressed skepticism around rent control in the past, was not present).

In opening remarks, Flaherty recalled his own previous home rule petition that came to be known as the James Brooks Act, a series of eviction protection measures that passed the Council after significant portions protecting tenants were removed, only to die in the Legislature.

Flaherty raised the possibility of another defeat in the Legislature.

“I don’t want to see us get all in a huff and divided and, you know, a big free-for-all, if there’s not a likelihood of success,” he said.

Flynn echoed those sentiments, noting he “would like to see if we’re able to have an idea of what the State House would accept and kind of work backwards” and proposing other “creative solutions” that did not include the mayor’s proposals.

Murphy also suggested “other tools that we can use,” asserting that “new construction and an increase in supply” — not, she seemed to suggest, rent control — “has been the best way to address the high housing costs.”

Most of the other Council members who spoke ranged from being supportive of the mayor’s initiative to impatient it does not require more protections for renters.

Committee Chair Ricardo Arroyo, providing a counterpoint to Flaherty’s comments, recalled what he described as the watering-down of eviction protection in the James Brooks bill.

“I saw the multiple changes … all the different protections it provided that were stripped out of it by the Council,” Arroyo said.

So when it comes to the rent control measures, Arroyo said, “I’m very aware that there’s a history to this kind of work and that there is often a push and pull where we are trying to [enact] sort of essential protections for residents of the city of Boston while also trying to make something that ultimately will get passed at the State House.”

Mejia signaled she will be among those Council members pushing for greater tenant protections.

“We are displacing so many of our residents, and the time is now for us to be incredibly bold, aggressive, and I am looking forward for us to have the political will that this moment is calling for,” said Mejia.

District 6 Councilor Kendra Lara commended Wu “for being brave enough to not only see a problem, but taking a step that has, from what we’ve seen publicly, really put you in a in a tough position.”

But, she said, “I think that my job here today and the reason why we’re here … is ultimately to ensure that the people who need it the most are properly protected, and scrutinizing and really critically looking at this petition and making sure that it does just that.”

Wu administration officials veered between these poles in their answers to councilors’ questions, defending the measure as not being too onerous to landlords and business interests on the one hand; and as including restrictions that would provide meaningful protection to tenants while allowing rent hikes of as much as 10% annually on the other.

“What this home rule petition does is stop harmful behavior,” said Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon. “If we agree that this behavior should be stopped, then we can agree this home rule petition should be sent to the State House.”

But the search for agreement between the three parties — not to mention advocates, opponents and members of the public who spent hours testifying before the committee Wednesday — will not be easy.

The question for the body, as District 7 Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson put it, is, “How can we as counselors come to a solution that we actually don’t do away with it all? And if this is the happy medium, then how can we move forward?”