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Rent control debate brewing

Wu’s proposal will need support of Council, Legislature to become law

Saraya Wintersmith and Katie Lannan
Rent control debate brewing
Mayor Michelle Wu attends the Massachusetts Municipal Association Annual Meeting. PHOTO: John Wilcox, Mayor’s Office

A day after preliminary details of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s long-awaited local rent control policy emerged, elected officials who may soon vote on the issue began contending with what it will ultimately look like. Boston councilors are debating if the mayor’s ideas go too far, or far enough — and if they ultimately approve it, it will reach a state Legislature that has historically opposed reviving rent stabilization.

The concept of rent control, outlawed by state referendum in Massachusetts in 1994, was controversial even before Wu’s scant specifics become public. A GBH News review of public comments submitted to the city on the topic found an almost even split among those who do support bringing back the banned policy and those who oppose it.

The new local proposal, first reported by the Boston Globe, would tether annual rent hikes to inflation and bar increases beyond 10%. It would exempt owner-occupied properties, where landlords live alongside tenants, as well as new buildings for the first 15 years from when they’re legally allowed to open.

Fifty-six percent of rental units in Boston — or approximately 185,000 units — would be impacted by the proposal, according to a city spokesman.

The policy, so far, would also include “just cause” eviction protections that limit landlords’ ability to evict tenants without leases, requiring property owners to have legal grounds to force a renter out of a unit.

Wu’s policy will go before the City Council in the form of a home-rule petition. If it passes there, it goes on to the state Legislature and Gov. Maura Healey.

Asked when the council and public could expect a written proposal to materialize, a spokesperson for the mayor replied: “Soon.”

Even though Wu won the 2021 mayoral election with rent control as central to her platform, multiple councilors expressed early skepticism over the policy in its nascent form.

“Overall, I’m not in favor of rent control,” said At-Large Councilor Erin Murphy, pointing to the city’s senior mom-and-pop landlords who depend on rent from tenants to supplement their income.

“Putting the housing crisis burden on three family homeowners by telling them they can only charge a certain amount of rent is not fair,” she added.

Murphy said she would look at the details of the proposal closely once it is presented to the council and may ultimately support it with concrete exemptions for small landlords.

Dorchester Councilor Frank Baker indicated a firm stance against the concept of rent control, saying the move would be bad for the city.

Others inside City Hall were surprised at the lack of other renter protections like regulations for charging broker’s fees, which can vault upfront move-in costs to the equivalent of four months’ rent in some cases.

Meanwhile, Roxbury Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, signaled opposition over the outlined exemptions.

“For one thing, all buildings newer than 15 years old are exempt and we have built a lot over that time. This favors high-end developers who have constructed many luxury apartments over those 15 years,” she said on social media, adding that a 10% cap would still allow considerable yearly rent increases in one of the nation’s most expensive cities.

“Capping rent increases at 3-5% and not excluding newer buildings would make more of an impact. Unfortunately, this proposal has the name of rent control attached to it with little to none of its meaning,” said Fernandes Anderson.

Others still, like At-Large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, held back on reacting.

“The council still needs to see an actual proposal,” Louijeune said Thursday, adding that she is generally supportive of rent control.

The specifics of what ultimately lands before lawmakers will be key, and once a final plan emerges, it will be before a Legislature that in the past has resisted rent stabilization proposals.

Sen. Lydia Edwards, an East Boston Democrat, said she’s excited to see Wu starting the conversation “in a concrete way” after campaigning on bringing back rent control. Edwards said her colleagues will likely want to see what Boston’s exact proposal looks like.

“I would say a supermajority of people who live in my district are renters, and many are saying the same thing: the rent’s too high and it’s not sustainable,” she said. “Many of them are leaving and they want the city, they want the mayor, they want Beacon Hill to do something about it.”

Bills that would let cities and towns opt into adopting rent control policies died in committee last legislative session. Ahead of Friday’s bill-filing deadline for the new term, Sen. Pat Jehlen of Somerville told GBH News she and other lawmakers are working on a rent-stabilization bill, and Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge said he plans to refile a version of his bill that includes rent control as one of a number of tenant protection strategies that municipalities could choose to deploy.

Connolly called Wu’s proposal a major milestone.

“For my entire adult life, it was almost inconceivable that the mayor of Boston would be actively working to return to policies of rent stability and rent stabilization,” he said.

In 2020, Connolly tried to add his tenant protections bill onto larger economic development legislation the House was debating. His proposal was rejected, with 136 of the House’s 160 members voting against it. Boston’s House delegation was split, and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat who chairs the influential House Ways and Means Committee, was among those voting “no.”

Michlewitz said Thursday that lawmakers will “have to take a hard look” at what the city sends them.

“We have voted against it in the past, but when we took those votes, it wasn’t a concrete plan. They were much more just opening the door on blanket rent control,” he said. “I think it’s worthy of a conversation to see what is actually being proposed, but of course a lot will depend on what it actually will look like and what the impacts are.”

Rent control supporters see the potential for an ally — or at least not an obstacle — in the new governor. Healey’s predecessor, former Gov. Charlie Baker, was critical of the concept.

The housing platform Healey campaigned on said she and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll would “empower communities” to adopt local policies that address their distinct housing needs, including rent stabilization, zoning reforms and other levers. Jehlen said she hopes Healey’s stance can shift the debate’s dynamics.

“People in some communities, in some kinds of housing, are losing their homes because of rent increases that can be 100% or even 50%, she said. “And this is disrupting neighborhoods, displacing people from long-term relationships and jobs, and the need is really urgent — and it’s really different in different communities. So I hope that this is the year we can make progress and give some relief in those communities that need it.”

Balancing the interests of different communities and pose a challenge to passing legislation at the State House, where each of the 200 lawmakers votes with their constituents in mind. Connolly said, because there’s so many different aspects to the housing crisis, a good approach for the Legislature might be a broader bill that addresses the needs of tenants, small landlords, community developers, municipalities and other parties.

“I don’t think any one tactic or any one bill or any one strategy will be sufficient, including rent control,” Connolly said. “Rent control is just one tactic, and it’s really going to work when it’s part of a comprehensive vision and a comprehensive strategy.”

Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News. Katie Lannan covers the State House for GBH News.

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