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Rent control supporters step up the pressure on Mass. lawmakers

Renters’ rights activists rallied at the State House on Tuesday.
Renters’ rights activists rallied at the State House on Tuesday.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Hundreds of tenants and advocates flooded a State House hearing room Tuesday to support a slate of bills that would strengthen protections for renters who are at risk of losing their homes amid Greater Boston’s mounting housing crunch.

And most were there to push for one measure in particular: rent control.

A quarter-century after Massachusetts voters approved a statewide ban on rent control, lawmakers are considering legislation that would give cities and towns the ability to cap rents if they so choose.

It’s part of a pile of proposals before the Legislature’s Housing Committee this month that aim to blunt the impact of rising rents, which are now some of the highest in the country, and that fit into a broader policy debate about what state lawmakers should do to address the region’s high housing prices.

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But to many of the people who stood in the hearing room aisles, sat on the floor in the back, or watched on TV from the State House’s Great Hall, rent control can’t come soon enough.

“It’s getting harder and harder for my family to keep up,” said Maria Torres, of Lynn, who said her monthly rent jumped $700, to $2,700, in July. “I’m getting more and more worried that my family will be thrown out of our home.”

Tenants from Springfield, Worcester, Quincy, Chelsea, and Boston testified in favor of lifting the statewide rent-control ban. So did Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, and several Boston city councilors.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh did not testify, but said on WGBH radio earlier this week that he supports letting municipalities decide about rent control — even if he’s not sure it’s a good idea for Boston. Walsh has also promoted other measures to protect renters from eviction, such as requiring “just cause” to evict older tenants.

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The range of support reflects growing momentum for more tenant protections, a movement that is playing out in pricey housing markets across the country, said state Representative Mike Connolly of Cambridge, a cosponsors of the rent control bill.

“The idea of rent control is clearly making a comeback,” said Connolly, who noted that Oregon, New York, and California recently strengthened rent regulations. “We believe that by working together, our state can be next.”

But the path to approval is far from clear.

Far less controversial housing bills — including Governor Charlie Baker’s bid to make it easier for cities and towns to approve denser zoning — have been bottled up in the Legislature for years. House and Senate leaders have been largely silent on the rent control bill, while Baker, who would need to sign it for it to become law, has signaled concerns.

The real estate industry remains staunchly opposed, with its representatives warning Tuesday that capping rents would do more harm than good when it comes to dealing with the housing crunch. They said studies show that rent control drives up rents in noncontrolled units faster and dampens real estate investment overall.

“We believe that rent control would give a cold shower to housing construction at a time when we need more,” said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, one of just three people to speak against the bill in the first four hours of testimony. “Our belief is that more [housing] production is the way to go.”

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But most of the people in the room argued that building more homes won’t by itself ease the affordability crisis, pointing to years of rapid construction that has resulted in ever-higher rents.

Several lawmakers and others suggested pairing the rent control measure — as well as a tax on real estate sales that Boston and other municipalities are proposing to fund affordable-housing programs — with bills like Baker’s. Together, they said, the efforts could jump-start more market-rate construction.

How the legislation proceeds will be hashed out in the coming months as lawmakers juggle several housing bills before their regular session ends in July.

On Tuesday, though, the microphone belonged to renters such as Mei Hua Zeng, a homecare worker from Quincy who fought back tears as she described how she, her husband, and their daughter share a five-bedroom house with three other families. Their rent has increased five times in five years, she said, beyond what they can afford. She now faces a landlord who wants to push her family out so he can renovate, but they can’t find anyplace to go.

“My hope is very basic,” Zeng said through a translator. “I want my daughter to have a desk to study. I want my husband not to have to sleep on the floor. With these protections, a family like mine can have a stable life.”


Tim Logan can be reached at Tim.Logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.

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