Rent control already faced steep skepticism on Beacon Hill and well-funded opposition from the real estate industry. Now, supporters of the controversial housing policy are confronting a new challenge: disagreement within their ranks about the best strategy forward, a lack of consensus that threatens to undermine the fledgling movement.
As a group of progressive activists and elected officials, largely from Cambridge and Somerville, push to put the issue before voters on the 2024 ballot, a coalition of housing advocacy organizations argue the smarter course would be to continue pressing the Legislature to take action. The split could slow progress on an issue that is just beginning to gain real momentum, weakening a campaign that would need significant volunteer efforts and financial resources to overcome powerful opposition.
For supporters of rent control, the stakes are extraordinarily high. If voters rejected rent control, they could effectively kill the issue, leaving little incentive for state lawmakers to take the policy effort seriously. And the Massachusetts Constitution would prohibit proponents from trying to push another rent control ballot question for six years.
Just before the deadline earlier this month, state Representative Mike Connolly filed a ballot petition with the attorney general’s office, saying he wanted to “preserve the option” of putting the rent control question in the hands of voters. Supporters of the ballot push point to broad support for rent control in some recent public polling, arguing voters are more likely to support it than state lawmakers who have already proven hostile to the policy.
“We believe there’s a really excellent opportunity to pass this into law,” said Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat. “A lot of people look at 2024 as such a pivotal election, and certainly we have found a lot of encouraging interest and support at this very early stage.”
But many of rent control’s most vocal supporters are staying noticeably quiet on the ballot question, while others have outright said they believe the issue belongs on Beacon Hill, not the ballot. A number of housing activists say now is not the right moment for a risky, grueling ballot campaign, and they want to build more support for rent control outside the Boston area before putting the issue before voters.
“We need to build up the strength of our movement to win this policy,” said Isaac Hodes, an organizer in Lynn and a member of the leadership team for the Homes for All Massachusetts coalition, which includes pro-rent control groups such as the Chinese Progressive Association, City Life/Vida Urbana, and New England United for Justice. “The path forward right now that we think makes the most sense is to push the Legislature and the governor to respond to this need quickly.”
Hodes acknowledged that over the past few years, “there hasn’t been a massive grassroots push” on rent control, but added, “That’s about to change.”
Banned by Massachusetts voters in a 1994 ballot question, rent control has long been a third-rail issue in state politics. Amid the state’s housing crisis, the real estate industry and some economists warn that limiting annual rent increases could spook developers and slow desperately needed housing production. Many progressive elected officials and housing advocates, though, say rent control is one essential part of any plan to address the state’s housing needs, aimed at protecting vulnerable tenants from astronomical rent hikes that force them out of their homes.
Only recently has rent control started to gather significant support from elected officials, most notably Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston City Council. Councilors voted 11–2 earlier this year to pass Wu’s rent control plan for the city, the biggest step forward the policy has taken in years.
Despite growing momentum on the local level, state law still bars cities from capping annual rent increases. Wu and others have pushed the Legislature to allow rent control, either by signing off on cities’ individual plans or by lifting the existing ban and allowing any local officials to impose their own policies. But the Legislature — which includes more landlords than renters — has shown little appetite for the policy.
Connolly’s proposal would bypass Beacon Hill and instead allow voters to decide whether local governments should be empowered to pursue rent control if they choose. But ballot campaigns are grueling and require tremendous human and financial resources. Unity among proponents would be especially crucial on a controversial issue that is guaranteed to face unified, well-funded opposition from the real estate industry.
Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said his organization is watching the ballot question carefully and preparing for an “absolute all-out attack on rent control.” Vasil estimated industry groups could spend as much as $30 million fighting the rent control ballot initiative.
Some pro-rent control activists told the Globe they were surprised, even upset, that Connolly had filed the petition, as a number of housing advocacy organizations had decided not to pursue the ballot measure this year. Connolly is set to meet this week with members of the organizations to discuss strategy.
Connolly said in an interview Tuesday he is “absolutely” committed to the ballot push and is working to “build consensus” for a ballot campaign.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm for pursuing the ballot question, and I can appreciate there are concerns as well,” he said. “That’s really the phase we’re in with the ballot question campaign, is just looking to engage everyone and working toward a robust coalition that could win this question in 2024.”
Wu, perhaps the most visible proponent of rent control in Massachusetts, has voiced support for a rent control ballot campaign in the past but has not explicitly backed Connolly’s proposal. She said in a recent radio interview that she hasn’t yet reviewed the language but believes local officials should have the power to cap annual rent increases.
Should Connolly and allies push forward with the rent control ballot question, the process will be long, burdensome, and expensive. Dozens of ballot questions are filed with the state every cycle, but very few ultimately end up before voters.
The first hurdle is legal: The attorney general’s office will decide in early September whether the petition meets the state’s constitutional requirements and can be certified for the ballot. The real estate industry is already fighting certification, telling the attorney general’s office in a legal memo that Connolly’s proposal is “fatally flawed.”
If the rent control ballot question passes constitutional muster, proponents would need to collect about 75,000 signatures to secure a spot on the ballot. Organizers typically aim to exceed that minimum in case of administrative errors, aiming for well over 100,000 signatures. Accruing that many names is a tall order, requiring thousands of volunteer hours, or private signature collectors who charge several dollars per name.
And that’s just to get on the ballot. Winning a statewide campaign, particularly against united and wealthy opponents, is extremely difficult, said Steve Crawford, a political consultant who has worked on a number of such efforts over the years, including the successful 2022 fight for a new 4 percent surtax on annual earnings over $1 million.
“Even if you start out way ahead, you have to go in knowing that you’re going to decline” in support thanks to negative advertising, Crawford said.