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Debate around rent control heating up at Boston City Hall

Hundreds turn out for “virtual listening session” to debate Wu proposal for rent caps.

Flags fly above Boston City Hall.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Nearly 300 people tuned into a virtual listening session Tuesday night for the city of Boston’s new rent stabilization committee, launching public debate on a controversial policy that has been banned in Massachusetts since 1994.

At the 90-minute meeting — which had twice been rescheduled — tenant advocates contended rent control can reduce evictions and keep a lid on rents that rank among the nation’s highest. Others, however, said rent control would hurt small landlords, and the city’s housing stock.

In last year’s mayoral campaign, now-Mayor Michelle Wu was the only candidate to clearly support rent control, and earlier this year convened a 25-person committee to examine what rent control might look like if implemented here. Rents in Boston have rebounded from a pandemic dip to hit new heights, and scarce inventory has driven the rental market to a frenetic pace.

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Several speakers pointed to Wu’s election as a rent control mandate. Mike Leyba, co-executive director at tenant advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, said it could help reduce evictions, which in Massachusetts disproportionately hit communities of color, and would prevent huge rental increases from corporate landlords without targeting small owner-occupant landlords.

“It doesn’t cause the sky to fall or the market to collapse,” Leyba said.

Several renters spoke about their struggles to afford housing.

Robin Williams said she pays $4,000 a month in rent for her three-bedroom unit, and works two jobs to try to make ends meet for her and her children.

“Some days, I have to think: should I pay my rent, or buy food? Put clothes on my children’s back, and my back, and put shoes on my feet, and as well their feet?” Williams said. “We need rent control, because the rent is outrageous. How are people supposed to live?”

Speaking through an interpreter, Juxiang Liang said she and her family pay $1,900 a month for their Chinatown apartment. She works part-time while caring for her young baby.

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“We often have to pick and choose what we can spend our money on, because after rent, there’s not much left,” Liang said.

And Annie Gordon said her rent started going up by hundreds of dollars a year after a large landlord bought her Mattapan apartment complex. She’s never lived outside of Boston, and doesn’t want to leave her community.

“Being a 71-year-old, disabled person, having to go back to work just to pay the rent, is not a fair thing,” Gordon said.

Others, though, said rent control policies could have unintended consequences. Demetrios Salpoglou, CEO of online rental database Boston Pads, said inflation and rent caps would hurt “thousands and thousands of small landlords throughout the Greater Boston area.”

Alexandra Bartsch said her family had owned three dozen units in Allston since the 1960s, and lived through rent control in Boston until Massachusetts voters outlawed it in 1994.

“It nearly forced my family into bankruptcy,” Bartsch said. “It is a terrible idea.”

City officials said Tuesday they will take public comment on the issue indefinitely, and the Wu administration has said it will advance legislation next year.

Any proposal approved by Boston’s City Council would go to Beacon Hill, where efforts to let cities and towns set their own rent control regimes have thus far not advanced in the Legislature. Governor Charlie Baker has voiced skepticism, while Attorney General Maura Healey, who is running to replace him, sent mixed signals in comments last week. Her rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston, has said she would sign a bill giving communities the right to set rent caps.

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Catherine Carlock can be reached at catherine.carlock@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bycathcarlock.