Commentary: Odds on return of rent control now slim, instead of impossible

For 25 years, the cities of Boston, Lynn, Cambridge, Brookline, Somerville, and Lowell had forms of rent control for some or all of those years. But in 1994, a statewide referendum repealed the remaining laws in a 46-44 percentage vote, with 10 percent left blank. Although I volunteered against the repeal, when I think about all the people who have been forced to pay unreasonably high rent increases, not a week goes by where I don’t greatly regret not having done more on that campaign.

In all those years since, it has seemed politically impossible to return to rent control, which would require approval from the Legislature and the governor.

What exactly is rent control? It typically exempts from its coverage owner-occupied multi-family buildings and usually exempts newly constructed buildings.  It sets limits on rent increases by using a formula for a fair net operating income that guarantees landlords a profit, but not as much as they want to charge, as they can now. It generally includes a just cause standard for eviction, including non-payment of rent, destruction of property, the owner’s immediate family moving in, and committing crimes in the apartment. But these fair reasons have to be proved instead of the current law, where the landlord doesn’t have to prove anything to evict a tenant.  People can resent and oppose this kind of regulation, but we do regulate and do not allow electric, gas, and car insurance companies to charge whatever they want.

There are three reasons why a renewal of rent control policies seems highly unlikely:

First, real estate interests are strong and well-organized to pressure legislators to oppose this through calls and campaign donations. With so much money being made in real estate development, buying, selling, rehabbing, and flipping buildings, there’s a bigger constituency against ending big profits.

Second, the governor has to sign it. Since it was repealed 28 years ago, we have had Republican governors for all but 8 of the last 28 years, all of whom likely would have vetoed a reinstatement.

Third, the Legislature has a large majority of Democrats but a significant number of them are moderate, so they are not always inclined to vote for this. Legislators representing suburban and rural districts have relatively few tenants in their districts. Huge rent increases are not things they hear about.

But two major events happened in the last two months that make the return of rent control go from the impossible to the very unlikely. Michelle Wu, who supports its return, was elected mayor of Boston over Annissa Essaibi George by 28 points. Last week, she spoke at a press conference prior to a legislative hearing in support on bills that would allow local communities to pass rent control. She will, otherwise, work for Boston to pass and send to the Legislature a bill allowing Boston to pass a rent control law.

Weeks later, on Dec. 1, Gov. Baker announced he would not run for re-election. Based on the candidates coming forward, it now seems very likely a Democrat will be elected governor this fall and would likely sign a bill returning rent control if it ever to reach his or her office.

Wu says she’s setting up a committee to develop a proposal for Boston. It would then have to be passed by the City Council in order to go up to the Legislature, as it would be a special bill called a home rule petition.

Some say, “We don’t need rent control, we just need more funding for affordable housing.”  We do very much need that, but when it costs more than $300,000 to make a unit affordable, we cannot “fund ourselves out of the housing crisis.” More local, state, and federal money for housing needs to be passed and it all will help, but it can’t do the whole job. 

There’s a lot of work to do to change the very sad stories of people being displaced by high rent increases or only hanging on if they pay 30 percent, then 40 percent, and then 50 percent of their income for rent. It will not be easy to win this; in fact it’s unlikely. But we have to give it a try if we want poor, working class, and even many middle-class renters to have affordable places to rent.

Lewis Finfer is a Dorchester resident and an organizer for the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

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