In the competitive race for mayor of Boston, all of the major candidates have called attention to the city’s affordable housing crisis and made pitches for new investments in development and increasing first-time homeownership.
Reviving rent control, or rent stabilization, as it’s also called, is off the table — except for Councilor Michelle Wu, who has endorsed it.
It’s a rare, go-it-alone strategy on a controversial — and, for now, theoretical — topic that has left her on an island all to herself, in a race in which policy differences among the multiple candidates are often hard to measure. It’s the type of gamble that could lift her candidacy among undecided voters or make her an easy target for landlords and developers who want to paint her as bad for business. Or both.
“It’s like the third rail,” said Eldin Villafane, a political strategist with Barrales Public Affairs, who has watched the race unfold.
“It’s a bold step” that seeks to address real concerns of inequality and the lack of affordable housing, Villafane said, particularly among disenfranchised communities. But it’s up to Wu, he said, to set the narrative that rent control can benefit the city, and its economy, despite strong opposition from developers and landlords.
The discussion is largely symbolic, at least in the short term. Rent control, which would essentially cap yearly rent increases in some residential homes, is prohibited under a state law approved by voters in 1994. Voters in communities where rent control existed before then — Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge — opposed the statewide ban, and some municipalities have since sought to change state law to be able to adopt it locally. But those efforts have failed.
The argument against rent control has remained the same since the ban was narrowly passed by a 51 to 49 percent vote: Such laws discourage landlords from investing in their properties, which, in turn, lowers property values and local tax bases. Rent control also discourages housing construction, say opponents, who argue that policymakers should be encouraging more development, not less.
But the discussion has intensified in recent years amid proposals to end the statewide ban. In 2019, Oregon passed laws allowing rent control. California laws went into effect statewide in 2020. And the debate continues in New York City, where some of the apartment stock is still covered by forms of rent control.
The discussion is taking place at a time when, a recent Boston Globe poll found, a plurality of likely Boston voters view housing as the top issue that would affect their vote for mayor. An April WBUR poll of Boston residents found that 76 percent of respondents support rent control, with 59 percent saying they strongly support it. Meanwhile, influential progressive advocacy groups use candidates’ positions on rent control to help decide endorsements.
Two years ago, the City Council briefly considered a home rule petition that would ask state lawmakers for approval to enact rent control at the city level. Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who was a district councilor at the time, said then that policymakers should remain open to the idea, saying the issue was at the center of a community hearing she held to discuss gentrification in Roxbury.
“We need to be looking at all the tools in the toolbox, this being one of them,” Janey said during a council meeting at the time.
Janey now opposes rent control, she has recently said publicly.
Wu has only endorsed the general concept of rent control, without setting specific restrictions. She said it should be part of a broader approach to confronting the housing crisis; Oregon, for instance, passed rent control as part of a legislative package that included rezoning.
In an interview, she acknowledged her go-it-alone strategy, but said, “We can’t be afraid to fight for what our communities need.”
State Representative Nika C. Elugardo, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who proposed state legislation that would give cities and towns the ability to impose rent control, said she expects support for the measure will pick up momentum as the housing crisis becomes more dire.
The mayoral candidates, said Elugardo, who has endorsed Janey in the race, are likely “concerned about alienating property owners” who have bought into what she called misconceptions about rent control. She called for better informational campaigns to promote the new proposals.
The discussion returned to the fore recently, when former city economic development chief John Barros — a mayoral candidate — penned a guest column in CommonWealth magazine saying rent control is “not a real solution,” that it reduces the production of new housing, and puts more burden on those not governed by rent control protections.
“The long term results are higher rent, more displacement, and reduced economic growth,” he wrote. He called for greater efforts to create more affordable housing on city land, encourage more affordable development, and support more homeownership.
The article prompted Wu to argue on a social media post that “rent stabilization is one part of a comprehensive strategy to urgently tackle Boston’s housing and displacement crisis,” with a link to her own plan.
The question was raised again during a recent mayoral forum hosted by the Responsible Development Coalition, an advocacy group comprising developers and contractors focused on housing and development.
Barros said rent control was “dangerous” and could freeze rents at the high prices they are now.
Wu responded that, “We cannot be building a city where families of color get pushed out. We need to step up.”
After the forum, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, also a candidate for mayor, said during an interview that she expects rent control, which she opposes, to remain a focus down the stretch in the campaign.
“I think that it fuels gentrification, it fuels disinvestment in our city, and it really doesn’t truly answer the need for more affordable housing in our city,” she said. “That’s what we need to invest real dollars in.”
The issue could remain important, particularly among undecided voters.
Joel G. Kinney, 47, a voter who responded in the recent Boston Globe poll, said in June he had planned to vote for Wu based on her qualifications and her focus on transportation improvements. But now he is undecided because of her support for rent control; he said it would be “destructive for the city.”
But Grace Holley, a grass-roots housing advocate who has worked with several community groups to push for affordable housing plans, including rent control, said more voters are embracing the concept, as they see the crisis unfolding. The concept of rent control, she said, is no longer taboo. She called on the candidates to “see what’s happening around their city.”
“It’s clearly a popular idea,” she said. “It’s not the only idea, but it’s one tool combined with increasing the number of truly affordable units and increasing homeownership. It’s a popular tool and if Bostonians support it [the candidates] should, too.”