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With Boston approving rent control, Somerville could soon follow

Somerville City Council has launched an effort to craft rent control proposal in the city, which has seen huge rent growth in recent years. But hurdles loom on Beacon Hill.

A view of Union Square in Somerville.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Could Mayor Michelle Wu’s rent control proposal lay the groundwork for similar efforts in surrounding communities?

In at least one city, it appears that’s already the case.

Somerville City Council President Ben Ewen-Campen on Monday filed an order that the council begin work on a rent control policy of its own, with hopes of sending a finalized proposal to Beacon Hill for approval in the fall. The council has expressed broad support for rent control in the past, but Ewen-Campen said the efforts in Boston motivated him to press harder to get some sort of policy on the books.


“The city council has been on record in the past supporting statewide efforts to lift the ban [on rent control], but we haven’t taken the next step of filing a home rule petition,” said Ewen-Campen. “It’s pretty clear that the time to do that is now. Our neighbor is doing this, our governor has indicated willingness to engage on this. We’ve got to make an effort.”

Housing costs in Somerville have skyrocketed over the last decade, as ripple effects from Boston’s housing shortage, the exploding life science industry in nearby Kendall Square, and the Green Line Extension have ratcheted up demand, and officials there have decried what they describe as widespread displacement of lower-income residents by an influx of new upscale development.

The city has also emerged as one of the most progressive in the state on housing policy. Local leaders there have rewritten large portions of the city’s zoning code to allow for more multifamily housing, as well as passed rules intended to protect tenants from evictions.

Somerville was one of four cities immediately surrounding Boston that at some point had rent control on the books until those laws were overturned by a state referendum in 1994. Cambridge had rent control too, and city councilors there have backed efforts to lift the statewide ban several times in recent years. The most recent such statement came earlier this week, when the City Council voted eight to one to voice support for a bill in the Legislature that would undo the referendum and let communities craft their own proposals.


“We’re many years into a completely out of control housing emergency,” said Ewen-Campen. “In my view, we’ve done literally everything within our municipal power to address this, and I’m proud of that. but we can’t with a straight face pat ourselves on the back and say we’ve done everything we can.”

His order did not outline policy specifics, but he said he hopes the council will follow in Boston’s footsteps and submit a proposal that is meaningful for Somerville’s residents but also stands a chance on Beacon Hill, where legislators in the past have been skeptical of rent control.

The Boston City Council Wednesday voted to approve Wu’s proposal, but the legislation’s future beyond City Hall remains uncertain. Beacon Hill has historically been hesitant to support rent control, and some legislators have already signaled their skepticism. Then it will require the signature of Governor Maura Healey, who has previously said she may be open to allowing cities and towns to pass their own rent control policies, but has not specifically supported Wu’s plan.

Should Somerville pass rent control too, the hurdles in the Legislature remain the same.


Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.