Little appetite for rent control on Beacon Hill

Download Audio
The Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill, Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill, Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is pressing hard to introduce rent control in the city, in hopes of stabilizing the housing market for tenants. A city-backed bill to cap rent increases at 10% on roughly half the city's rental units has been on Beacon Hill for more than a month. But it appears there's little appetite for it so far among lawmakers.

Massachusetts has had a ban on rent control for nearly 30 years, since voters narrowly outlawed it in a referendum.

But Mayor Wu has made tackling Boston’s housing affordability crisis a top priority. The City Council in March approved a home rule petition to exempt Boston from the statewide ban.

Now Wu needs approval from state lawmakers, and that is proving to be a tough slog.

Boston's home rule petition was filed by first-year state Rep. Sam Montaño (D-Jamaica Plain).

“One of the tools I feel we really need is rent stabilization,” Montaño said during an interview at the State House.

Montaño is optimistic about the bill’s chances and wants to dispel “the preconceptions and early fires that have been started” by opponents, who say rent control could hurt development and the quality of available housing.

“It’s not quite as scary as they think it is," Montaño said.

Yet, to say the bill lacks momentum is an understatement. It’s been given a number and assigned to the Joint Committee on Housing. But so far, no other lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors. Many are reluctant to even talk about it.

The last time the question of rent control came before them — in the form of an amendment to an economic development bill in 2020 — it was roundly defeated, 23 to 136. Eleven of those "no" votes came from Boston representatives.

The arguments against the amendment were that rent control could drive up prices of non-controlled units, and that some landlords wouldn't keep up properties or make improvements without the ability to raise rents.

The fact that a roll call vote was taken on the issue less than three years ago makes it a challenge to get it to the floor this session, said House Majority Leader Mike Moran (D-Brighton). He voted in favor of the 2020 amendment that would have allowed municipalities to impose some form of rent control.

"A lot of members will say, 'What is the point of even bringing this up?' Because the overwhelming majority of us took a position on this two years ago," Moran said. "Do we bring it up every two years? There's other things we can talk about with regard to housing. Why are we letting this take up oxygen?"


The Wu Administration says it's not giving up and sees this as still "early in the process." A spokesman for the mayor says the administration is in regular communication with people on Beacon Hill, and the mayor's staff hope to make their case at a hearing soon. So far, a hearing on the bill has yet to be scheduled.

There are rumblings that a more sweeping housing bill could be taken up next year, and it might address some aspects of rent control.

But Moran cites another hurdle: Boston landlords don't want to be alone in shouldering responsibility for affordable housing.

"The solution can't be just on one municipality to figure it out," Moran said. "The solution should be, I think, more broad than that."

This segment aired on May 2, 2023.


Headshot of Steve Brown

Steve Brown Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live