Outside City Hall, there is no shortage of opposition to Mayor Michelle Wu’s rent control proposal. But on the Boston City Council, at least, the reception may be warming.
This week, several councilors from across the body’s ideological spectrum either outright supported or sounded more open to Wu’s proposal, which would tie permissible rent increases to the health of the economy, with a cap of 10 percent in high inflation years.
While many councilors have yet to take public positions on Wu’s plan, and the body could still amend or reject it, supporters are growing increasingly optimistic that the council will approve rent control decisively.
One of the body’s more moderate members, Council President Ed Flynn, said in a television interview Sunday that he supports Wu’s plan. And more progressive councilors — even some who argue vehemently that Wu’s proposal does not go far enough — are signaling they are willing to compromise, rather than stand in the way of the mayor’s pitch.
Councilor Kendra Lara has been among the most vocal advocates for stricter legislation, calling Wu’s proposed caps on rent increases “untenable.” But Lara said in an interview with the Globe this week that she is “open to negotiate” parts of the policy so that the council can show how strongly the city supports rent control.
“We have to work in collaboration with each other, but also with the administration, to send a clear message to the State House that we want this,” she said. Lara wants to tighten Wu’s proposal, she emphasized — but “it matters” to pass something, she added, “even if it’s not perfect.”
The City Council is just the first hurdle Wu’s proposal faces in a long path to becoming law. Because Massachusetts voters banned rent control in 1994, Boston needs state sign-off before it can bring the policy back. Behind councilors’ willingness to compromise is, in part, a growing recognition that the city needs to send a firm, unified message if it is to sway a skeptical Legislature.
“It’s really important that we get as many votes as possible from the council side to show a mandate from the City of Boston,” said City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who chairs the committee considering the measure. “That hopefully gives the mayor and our Boston delegation what they need to negotiate.”
For weeks, Wu and her aides have been making the case — both to the public and in private to councilors themselves — that her proposal strikes the right balance between protecting tenants from egregious rent increases and encouraging continued development of new housing. In individual meetings, Wu’s team is pressing councilors to pass her proposal unchanged, though aides said the mayor will review whatever version lands on her desk. The fact that the mayor has even introduced a proposal on rent control — a third rail many local politicians prefer to avoid — marks a huge step forward, the administration argues.
Publicly, the mayor has also begun sounding a harder line on the rent control issue. In a recent radio interview, she slammed “special interest groups who might either be listening to fear mongering or practicing fear mongering.” Her comments came after the real estate industry launched a six-figure digital and direct mail campaign opposing rent control, and a landlord trade group sued the city for documents related to the policy.
Wu’s team is feeling optimistic, an administration official told the Globe, because “there is a huge amount of agreement between the council and the mayor” about the broad outline of the policy. Whether or not there may be “small changes,” the official added, councilors and the administration are “all moving the same way.”
Councilors’ political calculations may also shift in Wu’s favor as the body inches toward a vote, likely later this month. Progressives who were hoping to extract concessions from the administration had little incentive to voice full-throated support for Wu’s proposal early on, but could support it in the end on the rationale that something is better than nothing.
Should Wu muscle the measure through the council, persuading some members who sounded dubious at first, she will build momentum for the long fight ahead. Rent control is a lightning rod in Massachusetts politics, particularly among some longtime residents and political leaders who remember the policy from the early 1990s, though Wu’s proposal is far less stringent than policies in place in the region then.
Wu is proposing to limit annual rent increases to 6 percent plus inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, with an overall cap of 10 percent in high inflation years. To assuage concerns the cap would hurt development, those limits would not apply to new construction for the first 15 years; small owner-occupied properties such as triple-deckers would also be exempt. According to city data, about 55 percent of Boston’s 313,000 apartments would be subject to the policy under Wu’s proposal.
Experts say Wu’s plan is a relatively modest approach to rent control, and Wu emphasizes that it is just one part of her strategy for tackling the city’s housing crisis. What Wu is proposing now is far less restrictive than versions of rent control in place in many of the nation’s other most expensive cities. In Washington, D.C., for example, the formula for allowable rent increases is inflation plus 2 percent; in San Francisco, rents cannot grow even as fast as inflation.
Still, it has drawn intense criticism from multiple sides.
The real estate industry and other business groups argue any rent control proposal will exacerbate the region’s housing crisis. By contrast, housing advocacy groups, and a number of residents who spoke at a City Council hearing Thursday, are urging the council to adopt even tighter restrictions on rent increases.
Dozens of people, some wearing “Rent control now!” T-shirts or bearing signs calling for a stricter policy, gathered in the City Council chamber for the four-hour hearing. Nearly every speaker was in favor of rent control. Some spoke through Spanish, Cantonese, or Haitian Creole interpreters, telling tearful stories of displacement and urging the council to protect Boston tenants.
Many also pressed the council and the mayor to go further than the current proposal.
“I support rent control in Boston and I appreciate Mayor Wu introducing this proposal, but it really needs to be stronger,” said Alba Oliver, who lives in Allston and works for a nonprofit. She took particular issue with a provision that would allow 10 percent rent hikes in years of high inflation. “I could never afford such a high rent increase,” she said.
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.”
Mike Leyba, a co-executive of the community organizing group City Life/Vida Urbana, said he fears Wu’s administration will pressure councilors into passing her proposal unchanged, rather than approving a stronger version he argues is essential.
“I think the council is nervous, because it’s budget season, that there might be repercussions if they step out of line,” Leyba said in an interview with the Globe. “So the appeal that we’re making to the council today is: The people want stronger rent control, and the only way to pass rent control is with the people.”