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City council takes up Fair Housing laws, proposal to bring back rent control

Trea Lavery

City councilor Lydia Edwards has proposed a change in Boston’s zoning code which would require the city to analyze future developments based on the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and look at how potential building would affect displacement in the city.

“One of the functions of government that most deeply impacts what gets built and how communities change is our zoning code,” Edwards said in a city council meeting last week. “We need to make sure that that zoning code has all the tools necessary to combat discrimination.”

The civil rights amendment would especially focus on large planned development areas like East Boston’s Suffolk Downs in Edwards’ district.

She noted the development of the Seaport, which she referred to as one of the city’s “greatest failure[s],” as it is one of both Boston’s richest neighborhoods and the whitest, due to high rents that are inaccessible to low-income residents who are disproportionately people of color.

Edwards’ proposal came the day before the 51st anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which is one section of the Civil Rights Act, and protects people from discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, disability and other characteristics. However, she said that housing has long been one of the strongest ways discrimination has held power over people, through practices like redlining that prevented people of color from renting or purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods.

Edwards praised the Boston Housing Authority and Department of Neighborhood Development for already incorporating fair housing practices into their day-to-day operations, but said that this amendment would make it easier to ensure that all developments would adhere to those standards.

“Fair housing has always been about more than ending discrimination,” Edwards said. “It attacks systemic injustice.”

Rent control

In the same city council meeting, Councilor Althea Garrison proposed a home rule petition which would bring back rent control in Boston.

“There is a major housing crisis in the city of Boston,” Garrison said. “Individuals and families are being evicted and displaced at massive rates without just cause, often simply through degrees of callousness from landlords, although satisfactory shelter for our residents is a basic human right.”

Rent control was abolished in the state by a ballot vote in 1994.

While some councilors were in favor of a conversation around rent control, others, including Frank Baker, Tim McCarthy and Mark Ciommo spoke against the idea, saying that it would hurt small, private landlords and discourage development and investment in housing in the city.

“Homeowners who have two- or three-family [homes] have no incentive to put a new coat of paint on or redo the hardwood floors if there’s an artificial cap on [rent],” said McCarthy, who himself owns a two-family home where he rents out the second unit.

Councilor Kim Janey, who is also a landlord, however, was in support of some form of rent control, and said it would protect people who can’t otherwise afford to live in the expensive city.

“We need to make sure we look at all our tools to see what can work and what can’t work,” Janey said.

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