Updates on the effort to lift the statewide ban on local rent control

JANUARY 27, 2023

Dear Cambridge and Somerville Constituents —

As someone raised in public housing, and as a lifelong renter — housing justice is near and dear to me. When you sent me to Beacon Hill, rent control quickly became an issue I championed, based not just on my own experiences and convictions, but also on a clear sense of the reality faced by so many renters here in Cambridge and Somerville.

What I figured out right away, is that when we talk about lifting the statewide ban on rent control — we need to be clear we are interested in seeking fairness for both tenants and landlords. Local rent stabilization is about empowering our city officials to bring everyone to the table — that includes renters, homeowners, housing developers, and landlords alike — to craft tenant protections that can work on the local level and win approval on Beacon Hill.

I'm convinced when we present rent stabilization in this fashion — in terms of seeking fairness for all concerned — an overwhelming majority of Cambridge and Somerville residents support it — and with Governor Healey indicating her support for local rent stabilization as well, we now have a real opportunity to pass meaningful protections into law. 

This session, I'm proud to have re-filed An Act Enabling Local Options for Tenant Protections in the House of Representatives (HD.3922). Sen. Jamie Eldridge has refiled the bill in the Senate (SD.2368). The bill will be assigned new numbers after it is assigned to committee in the coming weeks.

The Tenant Protection Act lifts the statewide ban on rent control and provides cities and towns with a variety of flexible options for implementing rent stabilization and other eviction protections. Our bill doesn't attempt to prescribe the parameters of a local ordinance — we leave the decision on rent increase percentages up to a local city council or town meeting.

The reason for this flexibility is because the rental market — not to mention the political appetite for rent control — is different in different parts of the Commonwealth. But in order to have the ability to consider any local rent stabilization, we need the legislature's approval.

This approach — focusing on fairness and allowing for local control — has helped us make real progress on this issue over the past several years. Last year, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu offered testimony to the Joint Committee on Housing in support of the Tenant Protection Act, urging favorable action. Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne also testified in support of our bill, as did many of our city council members. It's been remarkable to see how strong the support for this issue has been across our three cities — and how strong the support is across the Commonwealth as well.

Mayor Wu recently announced plans to submit a home rule petition to the Boston City Council that will cap rent increases at 6% plus CPI, up to a maximum increase of 10% annually. Similar to the Tenant Protection Act, the mayor’s proposal would also fully exempt small, owner-occupant landlords (3 units or less) and new housing construction for a period of 15 years. My understanding is the text of the petition is still being finalized.

Last week, WGBH asked me to comment on her initial proposal — and I found myself struck by the historic significance of it. For my entire adult life, it was almost inconceivable that the mayor of Boston would be actively working to return to a policy of rent control or rent stabilization — for so long, the issue was considered a "third rail of politics." But thanks to our collective efforts over the past several years, we have moved rent control from the fringe and into the mainstream — and that is how we pass bold progressive bills into law.

Read: City Hall and Beacon Hill Brace For Rent Control Debate 

The reaction to Mayor Wu’s home rule proposal was swift: many on the right and some in the real estate industry blasted it as too aggressive, even going so far as to label Mayor Wu a communist for making this altogether reasonable proposal. Meanwhile, many of my friends on the Left also blasted the mayor’s proposal, saying it didn’t go far enough. I stand in solidarity with everyone who is organizing for housing justice, and yet I think it’s important to emphasize the need for consensus. Everyone should understand that a big part of the real estate industry’s strategy is to convince legislative leaders that opening the door to rent control will only lead to never ending conflict at every level of government — I worry some of the initial reaction to the mayor’s proposal plays right into that narrative.

I’m looking forward to the Boston City Council’s upcoming debate on this matter — and I will be reaching out to colleagues on the Cambridge City Council and the Somerville City Council to encourage both bodies to consider passing rent stabilization home rule petitions. Each home rule petition will send a signal to legislative leaders that our communities are asking for these basic protections. And if Cambridge and Somerville home rule petitions can reach Beacon Hill by Thanksgiving or by the end of this year, that would give us a window of at least 7 months next year to try to move local rent stabilization over the finish line.

In the meantime, we will continue pushing for the Tenant Protection Act, which would allow our municipalities to craft these local ordinances without the need for any further legislative approval.

I also want to express my solidarity with Right To The City Boston and other housing justice organizers who are backing a new, more aggressive rent control bill on Beacon Hill this session. This new bill will cap annual rent increases based on the Consumer Price Index, up to a maximum of 5%. I was curious how this new proposal might play out, so I checked the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for New England. Over the period 2007 to 2021, CPI never exceeded 5%, and it averaged about 1.9%. One year it was negative. Last year it did exceed 5%. I was happy to add my name as a co-sponsor of this bill, which is being filed by my colleagues Sen. Jehlen (SD.1818) and Reps. Rogers and Montaño (HD.3953). There is also another rent control bill being filed this session, this one by Rep. Galvin (HD.132); it would limit rent increases between 5% plus CPI, up to a maximum limit of 10%, and establish a rental arbitrator within the Attorney General's office. I am very happy to see all these bills being filed because it shows a broad range of interest and support in the legislature for the concept.

Finally, we should keep in mind that rent control or rent stabilization is not a complete solution to the housing emergency. That’s why my ultimate goal is not limited to any particular bill or tactic. I am focused on advocating for a universal program of guaranteed Housing For All in Massachusetts — one that does more to achieve functional zero homelessness and supports public investments in affordable housing, with new revenue (such as a local option real estate transfer fee, the HERO bill, an Empty Homes Tax, and new taxes on large corporations) along with a new proposal for a Massachusetts Social Housing Program and support for Community Land Trusts, first-generation homebuyers, expanded rental voucher programs, sustainability upgrades, anti-foreclosure protections, and so much more.

In other words, even if we win the battle for rent control, it does not mean we will have won the war for housing justice. Rent control is necessary, but not sufficient. The ultimate goal is Housing As A Human Right.

I’d like to close with the following fact: Massachusetts had rent control in the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1950s, and from 1970 until the mid 1990s. It’s been a common policy feature over the past 100 years. In the year 1920, our state legislature passed our first rent control act. The concept limiting out-of-control rent hikes was supported by Republican Governor Calvin Coolidge. Then in the early 1950s, Massachusetts held a referendum on whether to continue with the World War II-era rent controls, and a majority of voters approved, as did a majority of our cities and towns. The real estate industry is going to do their best to portray this as a radical, hopelessly divisive issue. But an accurate reading of Massachusetts history will show that, in fact, rent control is a fairly moderate policy intervention. Indeed, it is today’s ongoing crisis of cost burden, displacement, homelessness, and unlimited rent hikes that is the radical anomaly.

As always, please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns about this or any other matter.

Yours in service,

Rep. Mike Connolly