State lawmakers weigh rent control, amid soaring housing costs and pushback from developers

Rent control was in the spotlight on Beacon Hill Tuesday, as lawmakers heard testimony on a series of bills that would legalize rent control and other tenant protections.

It's a significant development for a topic that was until recently "practically a third rail" in the State House, according to one state legislator. But any effort to overturn the state's nearly three-decade ban on rent control still has a long way to go.

The legislature's Joint Committee on Housing heard over six hours of testimony from advocates, renters, and landlords.

"It should be no surprise that this issue has been gaining momentum," said Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly. Connolly said because of the state's housing affordability crisis, rent control is now "front and center and ripe for our action as legislators."

Several officials testified on behalf of the city of Boston, which is seeking an exemption to state law to enact rent control locally.

"Every single day, my office receives calls from seniors and families — their buildings have been sold, and new owners are [raising] rents or just asking them flat-out to leave," Boston Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon said in testimony before the panel.

"But there's very little we can do without additional tenant protections," she said. "We are not going to build our way out of serving our most vulnerable."

Opponents argued that rent control slows much-needed housing production and hurts small landlords.

"It leads to the disrepair of housing, and it makes it nearly impossible to remove non-compliant tenants," said Amir Shahsavari, vice president of the Small Property Owners Association.

Greater Boston Real Estate Board CEO Greg Vasil pointed to a federal study showing new construction permits fell by half after St. Paul, Minnesota, enacted rent control. Officials in St. Paul have challenged the methodology of that report.

The push to bring rent control back to Massachusetts faces significant headwinds. The organizers of a campaign to get a question on the statewide ballot suspended their efforts over the weekend, saying they weren't on pace to gather enough signatures.

The last time the question of rent control came before House lawmakers, as part of an economic development bill in 2020, it was soundly defeated, 22 to 136.

But advocates think support for the idea is shifting.

In his testimony, Connolly, the representative, said that in the last few years states like Oregon and cities like Portland, Maine, have passed their own versions of rent control.

"My respectful request to my colleagues on the committee is that we work to advance a rent control bill favorably this session," he said.


Headshot of Walter Wuthmann

Walter Wuthmann General Assignment Reporter
Walter Wuthmann is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.



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