Mayor Michelle Wu defended her administration’s draft proposal for rent control in Boston, arguing that it strikes the right balance between protecting tenants and supporting continued housing production, as she seeks to counter early pushback from real estate developers, progressive activists, and fellow elected officials.
“Rent stabilization, and ensuring our communities can stay and afford to live in our city, has to be part of our growth in Boston,” Wu told the Globe in an interview Thursday, a day after the details of the proposal emerged. The plan, she said, is about “ensuring that we are both stemming displacement, protecting tenants in their homes, while also supporting the conditions for the city to continue growing and to grow equitably.”
Wu is fighting to bring rent control back to Boston for the first time in three decades, hoping it will ease the city’s painful housing crunch. The city’s draft plan, which has not yet been filed and could still change, would tie allowable rent increases to inflation by permitting landlords to raise rents each year by 6 percent plus the federal government’s Consumer Price Index. In a typical year of 2 percent inflation, rents could grow by 8 percent. In high inflation years, like 2022, rents could grow by a maximum of 10 percent, under the overall cap Wu is proposing.
The Wu plan would exempt new buildings for the first 15 years after they open, as well as small owner-occupied properties such as three-deckers. Landlords could also raise rents as much as they want between tenants, through what’s called a “vacancy decontrol” provision. And the policy would be paired with protections for tenants, requiring that landlords have “just cause” for initiating evictions.
To make the proposal reality, Wu will have to clear numerous political hurdles and overcome intense opposition from critics, some who argue her proposal goes too far and others who say it does not go far enough.
Boston is one of the country’s most expensive rental markets, and many of the others on that list — New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles — have had some form of rent control in place for decades. But since Massachusetts voters banned rent control statewide in 1994, returning it to Boston would require approval from not only the City Council but also the state Legislature. Governor Maura Healey did not take a position on Wu’s plan when asked this week, and other powerful figures on Beacon Hill have already signaled they are skeptical of rent control, fretting that it would discourage investments in housing.
Many real estate developers agree; Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said Wednesday that “rent control is a failed policy” that “won’t help the dire need to create housing in Boston.”
Meanwhile, progressives have criticized Wu’s proposal for the opposite reason, arguing it is not strict enough to guarantee renters the help they need.
Boston City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said on Twitter Thursday that “unfortunately, this proposal has the name of rent control attached to it with little to none of its meaning.” And Mike Leyba, co-executive director at the social justice organization City Life/Vida Urbana, told the Globe this week that Wu’s current draft is “not good enough.”
Asked how she responds to those critics, Wu told the Globe that rent control is just one way the city is seeking to address its housing crisis, and “all of the pieces have to fit together.” Boosting the production of housing is also critical, she argued.
“Rent stabilization is not meant to create the number of units that we need to house all the families who are looking for housing,” Wu said. “It serves a very specific purpose, which is to stop the worst cases of displacement and rent gouging so that we have the chance to get that new housing built and open for families to have more choices. So we’re working on all of those pieces at once.”
More than three-quarters of registered voters in Boston support “rent control to prevent landlords from raising rents too much,” according to an April 2021 poll from WBUR and other organizations, though that survey did not specify what a proposal might look like.
Edward Goetz, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota, said Wu’s proposal would be among the least-strict rent control policies in the United States. Washington, D.C., for example, caps increases at 2 percent plus CPI; in San Francisco, rents cannot even grow as quickly as local inflation, as allowable increases are based on 60 percent of CPI in the Bay Area.
Wu’s proposal is closer in line with plans in larger jurisdictions such as California, and is stricter than the regulation in Oregon, which does not impose a cap for high-inflation years. This year, for example, Oregon landlords may increase rents by 14.6 percent.
The mayor said that “some of the larger jurisdictions have more lax policies than the one that is currently on the table.”
“This is really designed to be specific to Boston and Massachusetts,” Wu added.
Wu, a progressive who made rent control a signature issue in her campaign for mayor, intends to pursue a so-called “home rule petition” that must pass the City Council before it is sent to the state. Many in government and real estate circles had anticipated Wu would formally propose the measure early this year, even in the month of January. But the mayor said this week that the policy is still being finalized. Her advisory committee on rent stabilization is expected to meet again before the plan is filed.
Wu said she hopes to bring the proposal to the City Council “soon.”
Could soon mean weeks or months? “I hope it’s not months,” Wu said. She said the city aims to send a proposal to Beacon Hill during the two-year state legislative session that is just beginning.
“We are right where we need to be in terms of moving this along,” she said.
If Massachusetts lawmakers do not approve Boston’s proposal for rent control within its own borders, Wu could also push the state to pass a law allowing any city or town to pursue its own version of the policy. A version of that legislation has been filed on Beacon Hill in recent sessions, but never had enough support to pass.
If they don’t succeed at the Legislature, rent control advocates could also try to put the issue before voters on the 2024 ballot. But landing a proposal for a new law on the statewide ballot is an expensive, taxing process that would require proponents to gather more than 74,000 signatures.
Wu would support a ballot campaign allowing cities to create their own forms of rent control, a spokesperson said. But the mayor made clear that the current effort is her priority.
Right now, she emphasized, “I’m focused on what is within the city of Boston’s purview.”
Catherine Carlock, Matt Stout, and Samantha J. Gross of the Globe staff contributed to this report.