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Advancing to State House, Boston Rent Control Proposal Remains Up in the Air

Proposal Would Limit Annual Rent Increases to 10 Percent

Boston City Hall is located in the heart of Boston's Government Center complex.
Boston City Hall is located in the heart of Boston's Government Center complex. By Julian J. Giordano
By Dylan H. Phan and Jack R. Trapanick, Crimson Staff Writers

The Boston City Council last month passed a rent control measure to limit annual rent increases to 10 percent, advancing a proposal drafted by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 to the State Legislature.

The measure’s passage fulfills a key promise of Wu’s campaign platform to bring back rent control in Boston after multiple failed attempts over previous decades. It also comes amid a long-running shortage of sufficient and affordable housing in Massachusetts: Boston currently has one of the highest rates of rent burden — defined as spending 30 percent or more of one’s income on rent — among tenants in the United States.

Massachusetts State Rep. Mike L. Connolly, whose district includes parts of East Cambridge and Somerville, said in an interview that there is a need for the policy.

“We’ve been in a state of affordable housing emergency really for over two decades now,” he said. “Today, a more accurate way to describe the housing issues that we face are that this is a disaster.”

“We have never seen the level of homelessness that we now see in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Connolly added. “We’ve never seen the kind of cost burden that faces renters.”

Boston saw several periods of rent control in the city throughout the 20th century before a 1994 ballot initiative finally banned the practice across Massachusetts. The statewide ban’s success came despite majority opposition from the three Massachusetts cities — Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline — that had active rent control policies in place at the time.

As a result of the act, municipalities must now file home rule petitions if they want to regulate rent and evictions. Since then, multiple efforts in both Boston and Cambridge to file such a petition have been defeated either by voters, the mayor, or the city council.

Now in the throes of a housing crisis, a majority of Boston residents still appear to support some degree of rent control for their city. Approximately 68 percent of likely voters showed support for this new rent control plan, according to a statewide poll conducted by Northwind Strategies, a public affairs firm.

Shelley Hallman, a Cambridge resident who works in Harvard Square, said she believes local governments in the area should be doing more to address the problem.

“I hear a lot of kids when I’m walking down the street in Cambridge, talking about they graduated school, they landed a job but they still cannot afford to rent an apartment — that’s just frustrating, to hear kids saying that,” she said.

Despite the favorable polls from local residents, uncertainty remains over the bill’s prospects in the State House. Connolly called the bill’s passage an “uphill battle,” pointing out that “legislative leaders have yet to offer support.”

Massachusetts State Rep. Robert Consalvo, whose district comprises several southern neighborhoods in Boston, said in an interview that this was partly because the bill was still in an early stage of the legislative process.

“We’re at the literally top of the first inning of a nine-inning game,” Cosalvo said about the bill, which has yet to have a hearing. He added that he had not yet heard much from his constituents.

“Our job is to vet — the process is deliberately hard,” he added. “We want to make sure we’re being thorough. We want to make sure we’re being transparent.”

Nonetheless, Consalvo noted that rent control, passed or not, would be just one part of a wider approach to the housing crisis, a position similarly taken by Wu.

“It’s only one small piece of the pie,” he said, listing separate efforts the legislature was taking to address housing issues in the state, including hundreds of millions in budget appropriations for rental assistance and a proposed tenant protection bill.

Chris Herbert, managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and a member of Wu’s Rent Stabilization Advisory Committee, likened the measure to “anti-gouging legislation,” describing it as mild enough to avoid realizing some of the more common concerns around rent control.

“If you limit rents to a 10 percent increase on an annual basis, that leaves tremendous room for landlords to increase rents over time in a way that I think will be minimally, if at all, distorting of the market,” Herbert said. “Rents in Boston have not increased in any given year by nearly that amount.”

Hallman, the Cambridge resident, said she believes rent gouging practices are a major contributor to the housing crisis and should not be permitted.

“I don’t think corporations should be able to buy up apartment buildings and continue to raise the rent,” she said. “It’s just all for profit.”

“They don’t care who can afford it,” Hallman added, describing a significant rent increase she had faced the year before. “As long as they’re making more money: more, more, more, more money.”

She added that it was a “huge relief off my shoulders” when she found out her housing voucher was adjusted to help offset the cost of her higher rent.

Despite the moderate extent of the measure, the real estate industry has recently begun a campaign — led by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board — in opposition to Wu’s rent control plan. The board planned to spend approximately $400,000 at the beginning of the initiative to publicize their stance, yet the board shared willingness to invest more if the proposal were to advance to the State Legislature.

Still, Connolly said he hopes continued outreach to city residents will increase support for the proposal.

“It seems the more the public hears accurate information about what we’re talking about, that support only goes up,” Connolly said.

“I think we have to just continue doing advocacy — doing that outreach — as we prepare for legislative hearings that will take place this session on these bills,” Connolly added.

Correction: April 6, 2023

A previous version of this article stated the incorrect middle initial for Massachusetts State Rep. Mike L. Connolly.

—Staff writer Dylan H. Phan can be reached at dylan.phan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @dylanhieuphan.

—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at jack.trapanick@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jackrtrapanick.

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