The Boston City Council on Wednesday approved Mayor Michelle Wu’s plans to cap rent increases and restructure the city’s powerful development agency, delivering major — if early — victories on two of her signature priorities.
The two proposals had drawn critics from multiple sides, and early skepticism from councilors and outsiders alike, but ultimately passed overwhelmingly, with just two of the 13 councilors voting against both. The council’s most progressive members backed the mayor’s plans, as did some more moderate voices, a show of unity from a body that often splits along ideological or racial lines.
But a more difficult test awaits both measures: The Legislature has to approve the proposals before they can go into effect in Boston, and leaders on Beacon Hill have already expressed reservations about rent control. That policy has a number of influential detractors. The chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which has already spent six figures on a digital and direct mail campaign opposing rent control, said Wednesday that “the fight is just beginning.”
But for now, supporters reveled in their first big victory, with advocates in the council chamber breaking into applause after the approval of the rent control measure.
“This is a monumental act for the City of Boston,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who chairs the committee that weighed both policies. “I commend the mayor for moving forward with a rent stabilization plan to address what has been and is an ongoing, longstanding issue of price gouging and rent gouging and displacement.”
Councilors Frank Baker and Erin Murphy were the only two to vote against both the rent control proposal and the restructuring of the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
Its broad support at the council shows that rent control, long a lightning rod in Massachusetts politics, is gaining traction as Boston and the rest of the state grapple with a dire housing crisis.
Rents here are among the highest in the country, and continue to climb. According to city data, the average advertised rent for an apartment in Boston jumped 14 percent from $2,534 in 2021 to $2,895 in 2022.
While opponents warn that rent control could exacerbate the region’s housing shortage, Wu argues her plan would protect tenants from the most extreme rent hikes while still encouraging housing development. New construction would be exempted from the caps for its first 15 years.
Council approval, while significant, is just the first step of many, and Beacon Hill has historically moved slowly — if at all — on legislation from the city. And business groups vow to keep fighting rent control.
Tamara Small, CEO of the commercial real estate industry association NAIOP Massachusetts argued that rent control will have “negative impact on both the quality and quantity of housing.” The organization, she said, will continue to “advocate against any proposal that seeks to implement rent control in Massachusetts.”
Recognition of the powerful opposition to rent control — and strategic thinking about how to best sway a skeptical Legislature — helped convince councilors to come together on what several acknowledged was a compromise proposal. Some progressive councilors wanted a stricter policy, either with a lower cap on allowable rent hikes or a shorter exemption period for new construction.
But ultimately they voted for Wu’s version without trying to alter it.
“This is advancing legislation that is right now what we think can pass, hopefully, on Beacon Hill . . . while recognizing that there was a call for a lot more,” said Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who earlier this year criticized the proposed cap on rent hikes as “a bit high.”
“This is going to help level the market, it’s going to make it more predictable for tenants and landlords, and there’s room in this legislation for us to do more,” she added.
Councilor Michael Flaherty, a member of the body’s more moderate bloc, proposed an additional exemption for small-time landlords who live in Boston and own up to six units. But the council voted it down 9-4, with only Flaherty, Baker, Murphy, and President Ed Flynn voting in favor.
The policy would 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. Small owner-occupied properties such as triple-deckers 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.
The measure would also create “just cause” eviction protections for renters, preventing landlords from removing tenants without adequate reason.
Housing experts say Wu’s plan is a relatively modest approach to rent control, and the mayor has made clear it is just one part of her strategy for tackling the housing crisis. Her proposal is far less restrictive than versions 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.
The policy Wu is pushing is far less restrictive than versions in place in the region in the 1990s, before Massachusetts voters banned rent control statewide on the 1994 ballot. Boston voters opted to keep rent control at that time, but were outnumbered by opponents in other parts of the state.
Meanwhile, the council’s vote on the BPDA marked the first of several steps in Wu’s plan to dramatically overhaul how the city handles real estate planning and development by sunsetting some urban renewal powers and changing the agency’s formal legal structures. The pitch faced some early pushback from city councilors, echoing similar frustrations expressed by the BPDA board in February.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority was created by state legislation in 1957; the BRA and sister agency the Economic Development Industrial Corp. have done business as the BPDA since former mayor Martin J. Walsh rebranded the agency in 2016. The council voted to dissolve the BRA and EDIC as legal entities and officially create the BPDA.
State approval of the BPDA measure would require the agency to change its mission, altering the lens through which it considers projects, to prioritize equity, affordability, and resiliency.
City leaders have stressed that Wednesday’s vote to alter the BPDA’s structure would not change its exhaustive process of reviewing larger projects. Wu has, however, committed to updating it in the future.
Speaking to reporters later Wednesday afternoon, Wu praised the council for supporting both proposals and said she hopes state leaders will embrace them, too.
“We all hear from the same families who are struggling to hang on. . . . We all share an urgency in knowing that this can’t stand,” Wu said. “We’ll make that case up at the State House, and we are going to go up strong with a big voice from city government.”
Boston’s vote, the most significant advance for rent control supporters in decades, could mark a moment of increased momentum on the controversial issue. A poll released this week showed strong support from likely voters across the state. The Cambridge City Council on Monday signaled its support for a bill that would strike down the statewide ban on the practice, while Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen recently proposed drafting a home rule petition “to regulate against rent gouging by establishing Rent Stabilization.”
If the State House does not approve rent control, proponents have another option: They could put the issue to Massachusetts voters on the 2024 ballot. But that is an expensive, taxing process that would require proponents to gather more than 74,000 signatures — and then convince voters across the state to support the measure.
“This vote is a renewed sense of hope that this issue is actually going to get dealt with,” said Andrés Del Castillo, director of development for City Life/Vida Urbana, a tenant advocacy group. ”This finally says we’re actually trying to make real systems change that impact folks that are being displaced now. . . . Otherwise our residents and our community won’t be here to really enjoy that vision of Boston and still be in Boston.”
Globe correspondent Andrew Brinker contributed reporting.