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The Case For Rent Control In Massachusetts

Apartments along Worcester Street in the South End. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Apartments along Worcester Street in the South End. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In theory, you should be able to afford to live in the city where you work.

That probably sounds like a bad joke to Boston residents. Our city is one of the least affordable housing markets in the country, and the struggle to find an affordable place to live has been well-documented.

A recent essay by Jenna Jackson, a single mom and an employee of the city of Boston, revealed a particularly dystopian fact: working for the city itself is no guarantee that you’ll actually earn enough to live in Boston. “I’ve been working in the field for well over 10 years now,” Jackson writes, “but the irony is that I still can’t afford housing.”

We should have seen this coming. Study after study has ranked Boston among America’s most expensive cities for renters. For years, anti-displacement activist organizations such as City Life/ Viva Urbana have been amplifying the stories of Greater Boston residents — particularly residents of color — who were economically forced out of the region. Tenants and activists alike have been calling for city and state leaders to adopt more aggressive strategies to deal with our worsening housing crisis.

One of the measures currently on the table, thanks to a bill from state Reps. Nika Elugardo and Mike Connolly, would bring rent control back to Massachusetts.

... rent control, like any policy, is as good or bad as the local governments charged with implementing it.

Filed earlier this year, Elugardo and Connolly’s bill — "An Act Enabling Local Options for Tenant Protections" — would allow municipalities to regulate rent prices. If the bill were to pass, it would be a seismic turning point for Boston and Massachusetts.

"We have witnessed profound changes in our economy and in real estate markets over the past 25 years," Connolly told me in an interview. "In the face of an ongoing housing policy of austerity on both the federal and state levels — and with the continuing impacts of racism and white supremacy — it has become abundantly clear that municipalities need the option of considering additional measures to protect working class tenants, families and people of color from continued displacement."

Rent control, perhaps the most controversial measure proposed by Connolly and Elugardo, used to be law of the land here — until a 1994 ballot question put an end to that practice. Critics of rent control have long-maintained that the policy is harmful — that it encourages landlords to convert rental units into owner-occupied units that are exempt from rent control laws, which would put new residents of cities at a disadvantage. The theory goes like this: Established residents would hold onto their rent-controlled units, leaving newcomers with limited and more expensive options.

These critiques aren’t completely unwarranted.

A recent Stanford study on housing supply and rent control found that San Francisco’s 1994 decision to expand its strict rent control laws benefited longtime city residents, while constricting the affordable housing supply for newcomers. Cases like San Francisco are why many housing advocates are often quick to suggest upzoning, which involves loosening regulations on what developers can build where. Upzoning is usually pitched as an alternative to rent control.

But globally, rent control offers more hope.

In Berlin, rent control has been practiced for years, but not in the way that you might think. Rather than implement a broad ban on rent hikes, Berlin imposed a rent  increase cap on neighborhoods, relative to what properties in that area of the city were renting for. This nuanced policy worked at first, but landlords took advantage of a loophole that allowed them to raise unit rental prices more sharply — they performed renovations on units, which made those units exempt from Berlin's rent control laws. Now, in response, Berlin is implementing a five-year rate freeze on rents.

It's hard to call any place home if you're living in constant fear of being pushed out by the ascendant cost of housing.

All of this is to say that rent control, like any policy, is as good or bad as the local governments charged with implementing it. In America, we haven’t heard many rent control success stories in recent years, but that’s largely because we haven’t tried in earnest to make it work. We’ve capitulated to the idea that rent regulation never works — that the housing market shouldn’t be tampered with and that affordable housing will “trickle down” if we just upzone everything and allow developers to build more units without stepping on their toes.

But in cities like Boston, the promise that the market will self-regulate has not been fulfilled. The cost of living keeps going up. Fewer low-income rental vouchers are being granted to those who need them. Residents new and old keep getting squeezed out. It doesn’t stop.

And now, some U.S. cities and states are beginning to realize that rent control must be revisited. Take California, which has suffered from one of the worst housing crises in the nation. The state legislature just passed a sweeping bill that will protect tenants by stopping landlords from raising rents by more than 5% (plus inflation) each year. The measure is less aggressive than San Francisco’s controversial rent control laws but it will nonetheless offer tenants some immediate stability in a tumultuous housing market.

Elugardo and Connolly’s bill could achieve something similar here in Massachusetts, and their vision doesn’t stop there. The two lawmakers have put together a multi-bill “Housing for All” package that would transform zoning laws, with the goal of making it easier to build more housing. This could address the supply constriction criticism of rent control.

"Rent control alone is only one piece of a larger, comprehensive approach to addressing this ongoing housing emergency," Connolly said. "Any comprehensive approach should include production."

The tenant protections bill that Connolly and Elugardo co-authored will have a public hearing in the next few months. But for now, its core provision of bringing rent control back to Massachusetts is worth serious consideration.

In the short term, rent control might give the city’s residents an edge over newcomers, but that’s the point. A city that allows its residents and institutions to be steamrollered by “the market” isn’t really a city: it’s a gigantic business district where community and human life can’t coexist in harmony. Boston has been learning that the hard way, and people here are in mounting distress. It's hard to call any place home if you're living in constant fear of being pushed out by the ascendant cost of housing.

It’s time that we try what other “world class” cities have done and make Boston more hospitable for the people who are still here. At least for now.

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Miles Howard Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Miles Howard is a freelance writer who covers culture, travel and transformational politics.

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