A bill that would allow rent control in Massachusetts for the first time in more than a quarter century cleared a key hurdle on Beacon Hill Friday.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing voted to recommend passage of a measure that would let cities and towns impose rent control and other tenant protections, effectively undoing a 1994 ballot measure that banned rent control in Massachusetts.
To become law, the bill would still need to move through other legislative committees, win passage from the full Legislature, and be signed by Governor Charlie Baker. But Friday’s Housing Committee vote is the furthest a rent control measure has advanced on Beacon Hill in years, advocates said, and signals growing momentum for tenant protection bills.
Last month, Massachusetts lawmakers passed what is by some measures the nation’s strongest eviction moratorium to protect renters amid the coronavirus outbreak. While the rent control push predates the pandemic, housing advocates say it has highlighted how vulnerable many people in the state are to losing their homes during an emergency or economic downturn.
“In this crisis I think everybody sees the cracks in so many systems,” said Lisa Owens, executive director of tenants advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana. “Everyone can see how unstable our housing system is, and there’s this added pressure to do something.”
The measure’s fate is far from clear. Lawmakers have a host of issues on the agenda before their formal session ends in July, and have been voting remotely, which has slowed the legislative process. Baker signaled his opposition to the bill when it was first filed last year, saying it would hinder construction of new housing, though he has said little about it lately.
Landlord groups and some people involved with development remain staunchly opposed to the bill. Many economists argue that rent control lowers investment in housing and does little to decrease rents overall. Still, with housing costs extremely high in many cities, the concept is making something of a comeback. Oregon, California, and New York have all created or strengthened rent control measures in recent years.
Should it pass in Massachusetts, the question would then go to cities and towns, which could devise their own rent control schemes. Only Boston, Cambridge and Brookline had rent control in 1994, when voters statewide approved a ballot measure ending the policy.
Looking ahead at what could be years of difficult recovery from the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout, Owens said allowing rent control could be a cost-effective way to help people who are struggling.
“Lots of people are going to be asking for things that cost money,” she said. “This is a no-brainer. It gives lots of people protection and it doesn’t cost anything.”