State Attorney General Andrea Campbell on Wednesday certified nearly three dozen petitions for the November 2024 ballot, including one that would set up a high-profile battle over the future of rent control in Massachusetts.
But first, rent control advocates will have to decide whether the divisive, sure-to-be-expensive fight is one they want to wage right now.
Campbell certified a petition proposed by Representative Mike Connolly, of Cambridge, that would strike out the 1994 state ballot measure prohibiting rent control and replace that law with one allowing cities and towns to set their own rules to cap rents and fees, regulate evictions, and “regulate removal of housing units from the rental market,” among other provisions. The petition would not apply to two- or three-family owner-occupied units, nor would it apply to newly built units for the first 15 years.
At a celebration Wednesday on the steps of the Massachusetts State House, Connolly said he was confident in the petition’s future.
“We are confident that the voters of Massachusetts understand this issue,” he said. “And if they’re given the opportunity to lift the statewide ban on rent control, we believe they will.”
Campbell’s certification is the first hurdle in what promises to be an arduous and costly path to the ballot. The decision prompted immediate censure from the real estate industry, which has long opposed rent control in any form. Commercial real estate industry group NAIOP Massachusetts plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Judicial Court, and may be joined by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.
The Small Property Owners Association, which led the 1994 campaign to end rent control here, said restoring it would create “a monster that will destroy housing production.”
Complicating matters further: even rent control advocates don’t agree about how best to push their cause. While Connolly and some allies, largely in Cambridge and Somerville, had advocated for the ballot question, a number of housing advocacy organizations argued instead that they should pursue legislation on Beacon Hill.
Homes for All Massachusetts, a statewide housing justice group, said it has “serious concerns” about Connolly’s “unilateral decision to move forward on a 2024 ballot question against the wishes of movement leaders, and without collaborating with the statewide anti-eviction and anti-foreclosure coalition.”
“We ask Representative Connolly to drop his effort to pursue a rent control ballot question campaign, which will detract from the effort to win the policies our communities need and is not supported by the vast majority of rent control advocates,” the statement continued. “We know we need rent control now, and we are committed to building a powerful statewide movement to win and lift the ban on rent control.”
In response, Connolly said he has been growing a grassroots coalition over the past five weeks that “now includes a diverse group of over 100 community leaders and elected officials,” including state Senator Jamie Eldridge, state Representative Danillo A. Sena, former Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, and current and former city councilors in Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford.
There are several local rent-control initiatives in progress. Earlier this year, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration sent lawmakers a home-rule petition that would cap rent increases to 10 percent in Boston in high-inflation years, while Somerville’s City Council is considering a rent control proposal of its own. At Wednesday’s State House celebration, Somerville City Councilor-at-large Willie Burnley, Jr. spoke of how he and his roommates were displaced from their apartment due to rising rents in 2017.
“For me, that didn’t just mean just leaving Somerville. It meant leaving the state,” he said. “I’ve talked to so many people as a Councilor who have had to leave, not only my community, but the entire state of Massachusetts, because they cannot afford to live here.”
Connolly’s proposal, if approved, would bypass Beacon Hill and put the question directly to voters of whether communities should be able to craft their own rent control programs, if they choose.
But ballot campaigns are grueling and require tremendous human and financial resources. Proponents still 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 hiring 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 — and a campaign on rent control will face deep-pocketed opponents. Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, estimated industry groups could spend as much as $30 million fighting the rent control ballot initiative. His group earlier this year launched a direct-mail campaign opposing Boston’s rent-control home-rule petition, an effort that cost just under $400,000.
Connolly on Wednesday said he has already engaged in “numerous conversations with many allies and potential allies” and will be working to roll out a fall campaign.
Emma Platoff of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.