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Housing activists push for return of rent control

Legislators hear arguments for, against rent limits

Kenneal Patterson
Housing activists push for return of rent control
At-large City Councilor Julia Mejia speaks during a rally in front of the State House. PHOTO: KENNEAL PATTERSON

Nearly 26 years after a ballot initiative banned rent control statewide, voters may soon have a chance to reconsider.      

The Massachusetts Rent Control Prohibition Initiative appeared on the ballot in 1994, prompting voters to ban rent control permanently. The referendum sought to settle a two-decade long disagreement between landlords and tenants by shattering the rent hike restrictions. Although rent control was vanquished statewide, the three communities where it was in force — Boston, Cambridge and Brookline — voted overwhelmingly against the ban. The initiative passed by a narrow vote, with 51.3 percent of constituents statewide voting “yes.”

Activists rally outside the State House. PHOTO: KENNEAL PATTERSON

Activists rally outside the State House. PHOTO: KENNEAL PATTERSON

Now, a bill debated at a State House hearing before the Joint Committee on Housing on Jan. 14 prompts legislators to rethink the existing ban. If passed, “An Act Enabling Local Options for Tenant Protections” will allow municipalities to implement rent restrictions if they so choose. For the first time in years, cities and towns would be able to establish these measures without state authorization.

The proposal, House Bill 3924, was filed by Reps. Mike Connolly of Cambridge and Nika C. Elugardo of Boston. Along with removing the prohibition, the bill would add further protections for vulnerable tenants and reduce displacement.

“We’re facing an affordable housing emergency,” Connolly told the Banner. The bill’s preamble insists that it is an “emergency law, necessary for the immediate preservation of the public health and convenience.”

Rents have skyrocketed in Boston in recent years and continue to rise. According to the apartment listing website Rent Jungle, the typical rent for a Boston apartment was $3,226, a 3.47% increase from the previous year. In stark contrast, Boston residents make a median household income of under $6,000 a month. At that median income. a household would be able to pay only $1,800 per month without exceeding the standard guideline of spending no more than 30% of income on housing.

Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, said that people are no longer able to live and work comfortably in Boston. Over 50% of tenants in Boston are “rent-burdened,” or spending more than 30% of their income on rent, she said, and a quarter pay more than half of their income on rent. 

Neighborhoods of color are disproportionately rent-burdened, Owens added. Now is the time, she said, to right the “gross injustice” imposed upon families in 1994. 

“The most vulnerable of us have known for a long time we were in a crisis,” she said.

Not everyone thinks that the rent control ban should be lifted. Kate Franco, CEO of Trinity Management, said that “the negative impacts of rent control have been thoroughly researched.” Franco advocated for fewer restrictions on housing developments. 

“Rent control only benefits communities focusing on limiting new development,” she said.

Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, agreed. “Production is the way to go,” he said. 

Jeffrey Turk of Turk and Quijano, a law firm that represents landlords, questioned what he considered a “burden on private landlords.” He suggested options like Section 8 vouchers, which come from a federally-funded program and help low-income families, seniors and disabled citizens find housing.

Even with vouchers, however, some residents are put on extremely long waitlists. Ellen Shachter, director of the Somerville Office of Housing Stability, said that her city’s list is quite extensive. “It will take us 17 years to house seniors off of the waitlist,” she said.

Rebecca Schofield, a member of A Better Cambridge, said that the Boston area has changed quite a bit since 1994. The fear that people have around rent control, she said, is related to disinvestment.

Nevertheless, said Schofield, rent regulation does not have to be the rent control of the past. “It’s a very different city and a very different market,” she said, but added that municipalities should have more flexibility to prevent displacement and “do what they need to do to protect their community.”   

Other who testified rejected alternatives to rent control. Duncan Kennedy, a retired Harvard professor, said that “Section 8 is not the answer.” He also emphasized that this is a local option bill, giving municipalities the ability to decide for themselves if they want rent control. Some studies presented against rent control are “irrelevant,” he said, because the bill under consideration does not intend to forcefully impose rent control. It just transfers the power from the state to the city.   

Rising rents are not only affecting Boston residents. People from all over Massachusetts attended the hearing.

“In just the past year, we’ve seen states passing tenant protection bills similar in scope,” said Connolly.

Maria Torres, with Lynn United for Change, saw her rent rise 35 percent — from $2,000 to $2,700 — since last July.

“I am here to support rent control because of what’s happening in my family,” she said. “It’s getting harder and harder for my family to keep up.”

It’s no surprise that the housing crisis affects the elderly and families. But testimony also illuminated another desperate demographic: college students.

Max Page, vice president of Massachusetts Teachers Association, said that 13% of college students experience homelessness.

Children even younger must also face this harsh reality. Last year, public schools in Massachusetts identified over 24,000 homeless students. That includes an estimated 4,000 students from Boston Public Schools.

“Imagine keeping up with assignments while moving from one shelter to another,” said Page.

After the hearing, the bill has until February to pass through the committee. The committee decides whether it’s moving to the floor. 

But the Enabling Act is only a first step, advocates say. 

“It’s the crown jewel — a centerpiece — in a comprehensive set of policies,” said Owens.

Connolly added that he’d like to see several different housing bills brought together into one inclusive policy. 

“We need a comprehensive housing program to ensure housing for all people,” he said.

Connolly and Elugardo are not the only ones supporting the policy. He noted that presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both support rent control, something that has garnered national attention.

At the rally outside the hearing, recently elected Boston City Councilors Michelle Wu, Kim Janey, Ricardo Arroyo, Liz Breadon and Julia Mejia joined the rally, standing on the steps of the State House alongside advocates.

“It’s the people that put me in office, and it’s the people I’m going to represent today,” Mejia said, noting that it was her first rally as an elected official. She added that it would take an “inside-outside” strategy to win the fight.

“Nothing about us, without us, is for us,” she said.

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