The real estate industry is taking its fight against Mayor Michelle Wu’s rent control proposal directly to Boston voters, launching a six-figure campaign to defeat the policy before it has even been formally debated.
The Greater Boston Real Estate Board (GBREB), a lobbying and trade group, on Tuesday began a digital and mail blitz to try to persuade residents that rent control will aggravate the region’s housing crisis, not improve it. The organization is planning to spend just under $400,000, organizers said, with the possibility of pumping more cash into the initiative and even expanding it statewide should the proposal make it to the Legislature.
Wu on Tuesday defended her measure, saying her administration stands behind the proposal and “will fight against special interests benefiting from a broken status quo.”
The campaign is the latest political battle line drawn in Wu’s fight to mitigate what might be Boston’s thorniest challenge: its raging housing crisis. Multiple progressive housing and tenant advocates, some of whom feel that Wu’s proposal is not bold enough, pushed back Tuesday on the real estate industry’s opposition, saying the campaign shows the industry is running scared.
“The message is: ‘Get in line or we’re going to send out a bunch of mailers against you,’ ” said Mike Leyba, a co-executive of City Life/Vida Urbana, a local community organizing group. “They’re desperate. They’re scared.”
The “Rent Control Hurts Housing” campaign will send direct mail to tens of thousands of residents, deploy issue-targeted text messages, and organize phone banks where voters can call City Hall to register their opposition with the mayor and City Council. The effort is funded by GBREB members as well as national affiliates in the real estate industry, said CEO Greg Vasil.
The industry will “do whatever we can” to oppose the policy, Vasil said, arguing that it would only exacerbate the housing crisis.
“It’s really important to go out and try to reach as many voters in the city of Boston to make sure that they fully become aware and understand what’s going on with this policy,” he added.
For her part, Wu said in a statement: “We have an urgent housing crisis that is forcing families out of Boston and uprooting children from their schools. This rent stabilization proposal will protect renters from extreme and unaffordable rent increases that are displacing families from our neighborhoods and keep people in their homes.”
Kathy Brown, executive director of the Boston Tenant Coalition, said the opposition campaign is an overreaction to Wu’s proposal.
“The sky is not going to fall,” she said Tuesday.
The major opposition campaign is just another hurdle for a proposal that already faces a difficult political path. Rent control, which was banned by Massachusetts voters in 1994, is a lightning rod issue in local politics, and Wu’s plan set off contentious debate even before it was formally filed. She faces critics on both the left and right; some say her policy doesn’t go far enough, while others argue it should not happen at all. And Wu will need sign-off from the City Council, Legislature, and governor before it becomes law.
Councilor Kendra Lara said Wu’s proposal would “reduce instances of rent gouging and evictions but it doesn’t go far enough to be called rent control.”
“Any opposition to an anti-gouging, anti-displacement proposal is transparent,” said Lara, who is known as a progressive voice on the council, in a statement. “They’re not worried about housing, they’re worried about profits. I think 400K is a lot of money to spend because you’re scared.”
The ad blitz is just the latest sign of growing tensions between Wu and the real estate industry, which has come out fiercely against much of her progressive housing and development agenda. Developers say that in a period of climbing interest rates and steep construction costs, they can’t afford the higher fees Wu wants to impose to fund affordable housing.
Wu, who made rent control a major plank of her mayoral campaign, recently filed with the City Council a proposal to cap annual rent increases at 6 percent plus inflation, with an overall limit of 10 percent in high-inflation years. It would exempt from that cap new construction in the first 15 years, as well as small owner-occupied properties such as three-deckers.
Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, is among those who think Wu’s legislation should be strengthened. Those dealing with housing challenges often don’t see an annual 10 percent increase in their pay, she said, meaning Wu’s proposal would still potentially allow their housing costs to outpace the growth of their income.
Of the real estate industry, Chen said, “I feel like they’re trying to bully the mayor.”
Wu said the proposal — which is relatively modest compared to versions in place in the nation’s other expensive cities — strikes the right balance, protecting tenants from egregious rent increases without discouraging the production of desperately needed new housing. And she has emphasized that rent control is just one of many tools the city wants to use to tackle the housing crisis.
Leyba, the City Life/ Vida Urbana official, said that Wu’s initiative is good but that groups such as his will push to make it stronger. They would like to see the cap on rent increases at either 5 percent or inflation, whichever is lower, and have also objected to some of the new construction exemptions.
Still, he is pleased with how the process is unfolding and said the real estate industry’s campaign is one of desperation.
“I haven’t seen a lot of landlords suffering, in the last 20 years of being a renter,” he said.
Rent control, or stabilization, has its local detractors. James E. Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said that to better serve residents, the city should have “a focus on faster permitting and more coordination among city departments involved in the development process rather than high-risk, vague, oversimplified legislation that leaves some of the most consequential details undefined.”
“The city’s proposed policy overlooks the significant and historic pitfalls of rent control programs: a drop in housing production, costlier non-rent controlled housing, and poorer housing quality,” said Rooney in a statement.
A 2021 poll of registered voters in Boston found that more than three-quarters support rent control “to prevent landlords from raising rents too much.”
Rent control would have important immediate impacts, helping keep some tenants in their homes. But in the long term, economists warn, it can have unintended consequences, such as driving up rents in uncontrolled units or pushing landlords to convert apartments into condos. More affluent tenants may scoop up scarce rent-controlled units, since there are no income requirements in Wu’s proposal.
The City Council is set to discuss the proposal at a hearing Wednesday, as councilors on both ends of the body’s ideological spectrum are skeptical of Wu’s pitch. If the proposal clears the City Council, it heads to Beacon Hill, where House Speaker Ronald Mariano has already said “there are serious questions about the effectiveness of rent control, and any proposal made will be reviewed through the formal legislative process.”
Finally, it would require a signature from Governor Maura Healey, who has not commented on Boston’s proposal directly but said she supports local officials setting their own housing policies.
Emma Platoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff. Danny McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.