A strong majority of likely Massachusetts voters support Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s rent control plan, according to a new poll released Tuesday, which also showed most voters agree that cities and towns should have the power to cap rent increases.
A survey conducted last month by the polling firm Change Research found that 65 percent of likely 2024 voters would support a ballot question empowering local authorities to make their own decisions about rent control. An even larger share, 68 percent, either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” Wu’s plan to limit annual rent hikes to 10 percent or less, even in high-inflation years, the poll found.
Just 22 percent said they opposed Wu’s plan, and 10 percent said they were unsure.
The results bring a potentially persuasive new data set to the most robust rent control debate the city and state have had in years. As housing costs continue to climb, supporters say rent control is essential for keeping vulnerable tenants in their homes. According to city data, the average advertised rent for an apartment in Boston climbed 14 percent from $2,534 in 2021 to $2,895 in 2022.
But rent control is a lightning rod in Massachusetts politics, particularly among longtime residents and political leaders who argue the policies in place here in the early 1990s were far too restrictive. Since Massachusetts voters banned rent control statewide in 1994 in a ballot fight pushed by landlords, Boston and other towns need state sign-off to bring it back.
Now, Wu is pushing a plan that must win approval from the City Council, the Legislature, and the governor. While many city councilors embrace some form of rent control, support on Beacon Hill is far from guaranteed. In 2020, the Massachusetts House overwhelmingly voted down a rent control amendment, and earlier this year, House Speaker Ronald Mariano said he has “questions” about Wu’s proposal. Governor Maura Healey has said she is open to allowing cities and towns to institute rent control but has not specifically backed Wu’s plan.
Should rent control fail at the State House, there is another path: Supporters could put the issue to 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 has indicated she would support a ballot campaign allowing cities to create their own forms of rent control, though she said the current legislation is her priority.
Support for rent control was strongest in the greater Boston area, where the survey found 71 percent of voters support Wu’s plan. But voters in every region of the state back rent control, the poll found. Rent control also had majority support from men and women, white respondents and people of color, voters who attended college and those who did not, and across every age group surveyed. Democrats and independent voters back rent control, while Republicans oppose it, the survey found.
Despite that apparent popular support, Wu’s push for rent control has powerful detractors. The real estate industry is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a direct mail and digital campaign, pushing the message that “rent control hurts housing” to tens of thousands of Boston residents. Developers warn the proposal would exacerbate the region’s housing crisis.
Wu proposes limiting 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 also would 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 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.
Research shows rent control helps keep vulnerable tenants in their homes, preserving community and a working class in ever-more-expensive cities. But economists warn that in the long term, rent control can fuel gentrification by 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.
The survey was conducted for political consulting firm Northwind Strategies but not on behalf of any particular politician or cause, organizers said. Pollsters surveyed 711 likely voters from Feb. 20-23. The margin of error was 3.9 percent. Pollsters recruited respondents online using targeted advertisements to Massachusetts adults on Facebook and Instagram. They also sent text messages to cell phone numbers listed in voter files. Pollsters adjusted those targeting methods so that their final sample was “roughly representative of the population across different groups,” according to its methodology document.
When rent control was last on the ballot in 1994, opponents barely outnumbered proponents, 51 percent to 49 percent. Voters in cities where rent control was still in place supported the policy.
This story has been updated to include information about the poll’s methodology.