Dozens of housing advocates on Tuesday urged Beacon Hill lawmakers to end Massachusetts’ nearly three-decade ban on rent control, pointing to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s high housing costs.
In testimony before the the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing — which is considering several bills that would allow communities to enact their own rent regulations — Gladys Vega, executive director of Chelsea’s La Colaborativa, said COVID might not have exacted such a dire toll on her community had the city been allowed to cap how much landlords could increase rent.
“Chelsea was drastically impacted by the pandemic,” Vega said. “And I tell you, if our residents and families would have had apartments that they could afford and they could be living individually in their own apartments and not subleasing, we wouldn’t have lost so many lives and we would have been better off.”
In recent years, legislative leaders have shown little appetite for reconsidering the 1994 law, narrowly passed by voters in a ballot initiative, that prohibits cities and towns from limiting rent increases.
But this session’s push has generated intense debate. Housing Committee Co-chair Senator John Keenan estimated at the start of Tuesday’s hearing that roughly 160 people had signed up to testify, projecting “nearly eight hours of testimony.”
Landlord and real estate industry groups continue to push to keep the ban in place, arguing that clearing the way for cities and towns to pursue rent control would curtail the available supply of housing and cut into local property tax revenues.
The National Apartment Association on Monday published an analysis cautioning that capping annual rent hikes at 3 percent could prevent Massachusetts developers from building 16,629 units of new housing over the next decade and imperil another 1,995 units through decreased spending on maintenance and repairs.
Together, those figures would represent more than a third of the more than 48,000 units the state needs to meet demand through 2030, said NAA and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which represents thousands of property owners in the area.
“Imposing artificial and arbitrary limitations on rents interferes with the market’s ability to naturally respond to changing economic forces,” NAA president and CEO Bob Pinnegar wrote in testimony to the committee. “Rent control destabilizes the rental market and decreases affordability.”
Rent control proponents are likely to run into continued opposition from Republican Governor Charlie Baker and a muted response from top Democrats in the Legislature. Baker in October said he would “probably not” sign a law reviving rent control options if one landed on his desk, though he said he would “leave the door open a little bit.”
The arrival of new political figures could change the outlook, though.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu campaigned on bringing back some form of rent control to help address housing instability and skyrocketing prices, and last month announced she would seek to draft statewide legislation for the 2023-2024 legislative session.
At a virtual rally ahead of the Housing Committee hearing, Wu said opponents often portray rent control as a “scary” proposal that will wreak economic harm on a region.
“We know that other cities across the country who have implemented rent stabilization and rent control are seeing it working, are seeing that it doesn’t come with the sky falling and some of the consequences that opponents would have you believe,” Wu said. “It does mean that people are put first instead of profits. It does mean that we are working toward a vision of cities where everyone is welcome and everyone has a home.”
Baker’s decision not to seek reelection also leaves the gubernatorial field wide open. If the ultimate winner of that race comes to embrace local rent control options, combined pressure from the governor and the mayor of the state’s largest city could shift the calculus for legislative leaders.
Legislation now before the panel would not guarantee the return of rent control. Instead, several proposals aim to empower cities and towns to implement the policy if their leaders and voters support it.
One bill would include rent control among a range of several tenant protection policies municipalities could deploy, while another focuses on restricting rents and evictions, capping an annual rent hike at either the one-year increase in the Consumer Price Index or 5 percent.
Last session, the Housing Committee favorably endorsed two bills that would allow cities and towns to place a limit on how much landlords could increase rent with three-quarters of its members in support, but both proposals died without a vote in the House Steering, Policy and Scheduling Committee.