Advocates call for return of rent control in Massachusetts

BOSTON — Supporters of a bill (H 3924) that would allow for the return of rent control in Massachusetts said Tuesday that the state's housing crunch has only intensified since voters approved a ballot question in 1994 abolishing the practice.

Advocates point to skyrocketing rents and rampant high-end development particularly in the metropolitan Boston area that they say is forcing long-time renters out

"The housing crisis is moving beyond the poorest of the poor. The housing crisis has moved into the middle class and is creeping up beyond the middle class," said state Rep. Nika Elugardo, a Boston Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.

"I myself was displaced more than 10 times after rent control was abolished, and I'm still trying to figure out how to settle in with my family, and we have a ton of resources. Imagine people that aren't coming in with the level of education and resources I have," Elugardo added during a rally on the Statehouse steps.

The bill's other co-sponsor, Rep. Mike Connolly, said there are several factors to the region's housing crisis, from a changing economy to real estate speculation to racism.

The Cambridge Democrat said rent control is just one component of an overall solution to help people stay in their homes while more affordable housing can be built.

"When we talk about rent control, we don't necessarily mean precisely the rent control we had in the 1980s and 1990s. What we are talking about is lifting the statewide ban and making it possible for our municipal elected officials to bring renters and owners to the table to come up with solutions to stop displacement," he said.

The bill would let a city or town "regulate the rent and eviction of tenants in multi-family housing." Under the legislation, cities and towns could also regulate rent and eviction in distinct "anti-displacement zones" where it has been determined that residential households of low, moderate or middle income are at risk of displacement.

The bill would also let cities and towns regulate rents for mobile housing communities, regulate the conversion of rental properties into condominiums and create greater protections for tenants from eviction.

The bill would exempt three-family homes where one of the units is occupied by the building's owner from rent control.

In 1994, there were just three communities with rent control — Boston, Cambridge and Brookline. After failing to persuade those communities to jettison rent control, opponents backed and won a statewide ballot question.

Opponents say rent control is still a bad idea, including because over time rent control units are increasingly held by white renters — in part because of decades of housing discrimination.

"We tried rent control, and it created a terrible disparate impact on people of color," said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, a trade association.

Top Democratic Statehouse leaders haven't endorsed the bill.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said someone is likely to file a rent control amendment when the House takes up a wider housing bill. Senate President Karen Spilka said the upper chamber will also take a look at rent control when the housing bill surfaces there.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said the real solution is to build more housing.

"I think the best way to deal with all issues around pricing is to increase supply. In Massachusetts we're decades behind where we should be with respect to building housing," Baker told reporters Monday. "We've added 600,000 people to our population in the last 20 years. We've added a fraction of the housing that would be required to support that significant increase in our population."

Democratic Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu said that economic equation doesn't work with housing.

"The building boom doesn't come down to match supply and demand," she said. "The building boom is focused on profits and not on families and people."

Boston 25's Priced Out series:

>> The housing crisis in the Boston area and who is working to fix it
>> Pressure mounts on suburbs to find affordable housing solutions
>> Group says 'Yes In My Backyard' to ease Boston housing crisis
>> Micro-housing offers solution for Boston's homeless