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Rent Control Brings Big Crowd to State House

Housing activists swarmed the front steps of the State House on Tuesday before heading back inside to a legislative hearing on rent control. (Sam Doran/SHNS)
Housing activists swarmed the front steps of the State House on Tuesday before heading back inside to a legislative hearing on rent control. (Sam Doran/SHNS)

A Lynn woman told lawmakers she may have to move her family after a 35 percent rent increase. A Mattapan great-grandmother said she will go to court to fight a $700 rent hike that she cannot afford on a fixed income. A Chelsea college student worries about becoming homeless.

The solution, they all said, is to revive local rent control options that were banned statewide by a 1994 ballot question, allowing their hometowns to place restrictions on how much landlords could hike costs.

After kicking off with warnings from real estate industry leaders that rent control could stifle housing production, members of the Joint Committee on Housing heard hours of personal testimony Tuesday from activists and tenants worried that rising prices will force them out of their homes.

"It's getting harder and harder for my family to keep up, and I'm really worried I'm getting pushed out of my home," said Maria Torres, a Lynn United for Change member who said her monthly rent rose $700 last year.

"That's why rent control is important," Torres continued. "Without it, people like me will be pushed out and excluded from our own cities. Communities will be broken up, and that's not right. Please help us stop it from happening."

Two bills before the committee would allow cities and towns to implement rent control. One from Cambridge Rep. David Rogers focuses on setting rent-increase caps, allowing increases in line with the annual change in the consumer price index for the area, or 5% per year, whichever is less. Tenants would qualify for the protection if they earn 80% or less the area median income. The other bill co-filed by Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly and Boston Rep. Nika Elugardo includes other tenant protection tools.

Progressive lawmakers leading the charge see the controversial idea as a valuable complement to another bill before the committee, which would let cities and towns impose fees on real estate transfers and use the revenue to expand affordable housing opportunities.

Rent control had been allowed at the local level until 1994, when voters approved a landlord-backed ballot question prohibiting the practice by a margin of about 51% to 49%. At the time, only Boston, Brookline and Cambridge — all of which voted in favor of keeping rent control — had policies in place.

More than two decades later, supporters believe the time is right to revive the practice.

"This housing crisis is a result of profound wealth and income inequality," Connolly told the News Service. "It's a result of real estate speculation. It's a result of changes in our economy. All of these factors are things that have really gotten worse in the past 25 years. The housing emergency of 2020 is more severe and more pernicious than it was 25 years ago."

Connolly said during his testimony that, following statewide policies passing in Oregon, New York and California, he believes rent control "is clearly making a comeback."

Crowds were undeterred by a "plumbing issue" that prompted the committee to move the hearing from Gardner Auditorium, which holds 600 people, to smaller hearing rooms that together hold only 230. Hours in, every seat was still taken and the walls were lined with advocates waiting to speak, while those who could not fit were directed to watch a video feed in the Great Hall.

"The affordability and displacement crisis is growing faster than we and many nonprofits can handle it," said City Life / Vida Urbana Executive Director Lisa Owens, who noted that women, people of color and low-income residents are disproportionately affected by high housing costs. "The need for bold, comprehensive solutions has never been greater."

The rent control effort faces objection from much of the landlord and real estate industry, which is pushing to boost the overall supply of housing. Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, told lawmakers that the practice could stall other efforts to address a strained housing market.

"We believe rent control would be a cold shower to production at a time when we need more production," Vasil said. "Our belief is that production is the way to go."

Gov. Charlie Baker also opposes the revived push for rent control options. In March, he described it as "exactly the wrong direction we should go," arguing that local limits on price increases could stifle production of new housing.

The governor's main housing focus has been a bill he first filed in 2017, which would allow cities and towns to make zoning changes with only a simple majority vote at the local level rather than a two-thirds majority. He and supporters say the lower threshold will allow more development to get off the ground.

That bill and others including similar language remain pending before the House Ways and Means Committee.

While its proponents are vocal, rent control supporters could lack the numbers to push their measures through the House and Senate. Connolly and Elugardo's tenant protection bill has 19 cosponsors, many of them among the Legislature's progressive wing, and the Rogers bill has nine.

However, local officials have ramped up their calls in recent months for significant action. Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has been vocally advocating for rent control and referenced Connolly's bill in his inaugural address last week. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told WGBH on Monday that, while he is undecided on rent control as an idea, he supports the bills that would allow local officials to decide.

Several other municipal leaders voiced their support for the legislation Tuesday, including Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and Boston City Councilors Kim Janey, Michelle Wu, Ricardo Arroyo, Liz Breadon and Julia Mejia.

"Passage of this bill seems like an extraordinary measure because it would roll back the law that says we can't touch rent prices in the commonwealth," Rivera said. "Some people might even say it will fundamentally alter our economy. The reality is we're already living in extraordinary times, and if we don't do something, our economy will be fundamentally altered and the people who can least afford to and are the most vulnerable will suffer the most."

Another bill, unrelated to rent control, would allow participating cities and towns to implement a fee between 0.5% and 2% on real estate purchases, then direct the revenue to the Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Advocates including Connolly unveiled support for a similar proposal last week.

Like the rent control proposal, the legislation would not mandate any changes and would only allow municipalities to make changes if they wish.

The transfer fee bill has 22 cosponsors on board.

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