In a hearing that lasted over five hours Wednesday, Boston’s city councilors sank their teeth into Mayor Michelle Wu’s controversial rent control proposal for the first time, highlighting the uphill battle the policy faces before it can become law.
Progressive councilors argued the proposal, which would cap rent increases in line with inflation, doesn’t go far enough to protect tenants from devastating rent hikes or eviction. The council’s centrists worried about harming small landlords or dampening housing production in the city.
There was, however, general agreement that some form of rent control could help address the worst effects of Boston’s housing crisis, and that, in order to succeed on Beacon Hill, it would need to walk a fine line.
“I do understand that we need to be able to walk this delicate balance, both to protect renters from exorbitant [rent increases], while also providing [for] small landlords of older housing stock to be able to keep up with capital repairs,” said Councilor Gabriela Coletta, who represents Charlestown, East Boston, and the North End. “This proposal is a good start.”
A balance is what Wu’s proposal attempts to strike. Her policy would tie yearly rent increases to inflation, capping those hikes at a rate of 6 percent plus the Consumer Price Index. So, in a year with a typical inflation rate, around 2 percent, rent increases would be limited to 8 percent. Hikes in higher inflation years would be capped at 10 percent.
But some councilors thought that 6 percent limit is too high, meaning it would still allow for rent increases that put a financial strain on residents.
Kendra Lara, a first-term councilor representing parts of West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale, said she “could not” support a policy that allows for hikes at the cap Wu proposed.
Wu has framed the policy as “rent stabilization,” meaning it aims to eliminate the most egregious rent hikes without discouraging new housing development.
Her policy also includes some notable exemptions, including for owner-occupied properties of six units or fewer, and new buildings of any size for 15 years after they first open. It would temporarily exempt properties constructed within the last 15 years as well, a stipulation found in the rent control policies of several other US cities, but that some councilors found concerning. City data indicate that around 40,500 units, or roughly 13 percent of the city’s total housing stock, were built in that period and would not be subject to rent caps until their 15th year in operation.
Wu’s proposal would also enact “just cause” eviction protections for tenants, meaning a landlord would need to have what the city considers adequate reason — like damage to a property caused by a tenant — to start an eviction. Some councilors, including Lara, argued that policy does not go far enough.
Council President Ed Flynn said he was concerned about rent caps harming small landlords. He proposed a property tax exemption of $6,000 a year for landlords who rent units at $500 a month below the market rate to make more of the city’s housing stock affordable.
“There’s many that are already doing that throughout the city,” said Flynn. “[We should] reward those property owners who have been good neighbors by charging a lower rate to help families stay in the city.”
The meeting also included comments from housing advocates, who argued fiercely for a firmer rent control law, and representatives of the local real estate industry, who doubled down on statements they began circulating in a six-figure campaign on Tuesday claiming such a policy would worsen the city’s housing shortage and increase rents.
Wu’s proposal still has a long way to go before becoming law. If it passes a divided council, it will then need approval from the Legislature, which has balked at rent control in the past. And finally, it must win approval from Governor Maura Healey, who has not taken a position on Wu’s proposal but has signaled in the past that she may be open to letting cities and towns pursue rent control.
Another City Council hearing on the proposal is set for March 2.