Somerville and Boston want rent control, but Beacon Hill could get in the way

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It's been 27 years since voters ended rent control in Massachusetts. But with a housing shortage and rising rents, there's renewed interest in bringing back the measure.

Boston’s new mayor, Michelle Wu, was sworn in last week after campaigning on a platform that included rent control — also known as rent stabilization. And Somerville's mayor-elect, Katjana Ballantyne, also touted rent control during her campaign.

Before the election, Wu said rent control — which limits how much landlords can hike rents each year — has "worked to keep people in their homes in cities across the country."

With her family by her side, Michelle Wu takes the oath of office as mayor of Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
With her family by her side, Michelle Wu takes the oath of office as mayor of Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The measure has a long history in Massachusetts.

Several communities in the area, including Cambridge, Brookline and Boston, enacted rent control around the 1970s. And the policy remained popular in all three cities.

But landlords helped put a statewide ban on the ballot in 1994. And it narrowly passed, 51% to 49%.

Opponents say rent control discourages people from investing in apartments — hurting tenants in the long run.

"They don't even build new rental housing," said Skip Schloming, who until recently was head of the Small Property Owners Association.

But the skyrocketing cost of housing has energized supporters of rent control, who hope to finally end the ban. Home prices in Boston have more than quadrupled since the ban took effect, even after inflation, and rents have soared in unison.

"Many people are being forced to leave the city," said Joe Kriesberg, of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. "This is a real crisis for Boston, for Greater Boston."

Kriesberg agrees the state needs more housing. But he also says cities need to tackle rising rents. A WBUR poll in April found three-quarters of Boston voters supported limiting rent increases.

And even some opponents have changed their minds.

That includes Mayor Wu, a Harvard graduate who spent eight years serving on Boston's City Council.


"I graduated from college with a degree in economics, and when you're thinking about supply and demand, the standard economic theory is that when you put constraints [on rents] that it affects supply as well,” Wu told WBUR ahead of Election Day in November.

In the years since, Wu said, it’s become increasingly clear that housing costs are at a breaking point. Wu said cities and neighborhoods need to be able to consider all options for policies, including capping rents.

That sentiment resonates in Somerville, which also elected a new mayor who supports rent control. But Mayor-elect Ballantyne pointed out during the campaign that cities can't revive rent control until the state changes the law.

"So we need to work with our state delegation to try to do something for that," Ballantyne said.

Katjana Ballantyne (Courtesy Ballantyne mayoral campaign)
Katjana Ballantyne (Courtesy Ballantyne mayoral campaign)

Progressive lawmakers from Boston and Somerville have filed several bills in recent years to overturn the statewide ban and give local leaders more options. But none have passed, and some lawmakers have reservations on the unintended consequences of capping rents.

That includes state Sen. John Keenan, from Quincy, who co-chairs the Joint Housing Committee and said he owns 14 rental units in his district.

"One of the concerns about rent control — and I will do more research on this — is that you're not creating any more housing," Keenan said.

Though Keenan agreed rent control could help reduce the rents for some tenants, he argues it could drive up the rents for others.

Keenan said he's looking forward to learning from both sides at a Jan. 11 hearing on housing bills, including some related to rent control.

Even if a rent control bill gets through the Democratic legislature, it might not land the two-thirds majority needed to override a potential veto. Gov. Charlie Baker recently told WGBH that he "probably" would not sign such a measure.

"Number one, it's unfair," said the Swampscott Republican. "I lived for a bunch of years in Boston, paying market rent when I was a young person next to two apartments that had older folks that made more than me."

And Baker said those people's rent was about half what he was paying, as their apartments were rent controlled.

But the ultimate fate of rent control could depend on what kind of plan cities put forth.

Wu said she's open to teaming up with other cities to develop a rent control plan, and proposing that lawmakers carve out an exception for the plan. She said that could be easier than trying to reverse the statewide prohibition entirely.

Despite the political hurdles, housing advocates hope new mayors like Wu and Ballantyne follow through on their campaign promises and find a way to reinstate rent control.

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 before heading back inside to a legislative hearing on rent control. (Sam Doran/SHNS)

Kwesi Matthew, a tenant activist in Mattapan, said rent control was central to Wu's platform.

Wu "didn't win with the paving of the roads," Matthew said. "[Wu said] she's going to help me to keep a roof over my head by stabilizing my rent."

Other supporters think they might need to wait until next year's state election, when a new governor could potentially be elected that is more open to rent control.

But this month's elections in Somerville and Boston ensure we’ll likely hear more about rent control in months or years to come.

This segment aired on November 22, 2021.


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Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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