Rent Control Supporters Dominate Beacon Hill Hearing – But Opponents Say It Would Help Few While Hurting Many

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Rent control supporters flooded the Massachusetts State House on Tuesday, hoping to revive it more than 25 years after the state’s voters killed it.

Supporters filled hearing rooms A-1 and A-2 to their 230-person capacity and also gathered in the Great Hall and outside. They dominated testimony before the Joint Committee on Housing of the state Legislature, which is considering bills that would once again allow cities and towns to implement government controls on how much rent a property owner can charge to a residential tenant.

Democratic city politicians like Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, and Boston City Council members Kim Janey and Michelle Wu, among many others, appeared at the event. However, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a supporter of allowing local communities to implement rent control who says he is undecided about implementing it, was noticeably absent.

Left-of-center politicians attending the event spoke in support of the proposed legislation. That includes Cambridge City Councilor Jaivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, a member of the Boston Democratic Socialists of America.

“Every time we put in a new park, a new transit line, a new grocery store, we’re running the risk of displacing the folks in the community by making it more desirable and giving landlords an opportunity to raise rents,” he said. “If you’re improving upon these, you aren’t improving it, you are colonizing it.”

Massachusetts House Bill 3924, “An Act Enabling Local Options for Tenant Protections,” has as primary sponsors state Representatives Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge) and Nika C. Elugardo (D-Boston), members of the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus. 

Over the course of the day, many urban residents testified about their rising costs of rent.

Mattapan resident and great-grandmother Ruby James Saucer, a member of City Life/Vida Urbina, was among them.

“My building was bought, my new landlord demanded a $700 rent increase,” Saucer said. “I’m on a fixed income. I have rats. It’s not fair that I should pay more for this quality of housing. No one should have to live in these conditions.”

Another was Maria Torres, a member of Lynn United for Change. She said her landlord recently increased her rent from $2,000 a month to $2,700.

“It’s getting harder and harder for my family to keep up, and I’m really worried I’m getting pushed out of my home,” Torres said. “That’s why rent control is important. Without it, people like me will be pushed out and excluded from our own cities. Communities will be broken up, and that’s not right. Please help us stop it from happening.”

In the first five hours of the hearing, only one person among those scheduled to speak gave a landlord’s perspective on the matter – Greg Vasil, chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Vasil agreed rising housing costs are a problem, but offered a different solution.

“We need more units,” he said. “We need more things to be built here and we struggle because the cost of construction is so high.”

He also that rent control would be a what he called a “cold shower” on housing production and that economists “overwhelmingly agree that price controls are inefficient, counterproductive.”

A 2012 IGM Forum Poll backs that claim. It found just 2 percent of economists responding to the poll thought rent control positively affected New York City and San Francisco. Most of them (81 percent) disagreed.

MassLandlords executive director Douglas Quattrochi also testified during the hearing Tuesday, January 14.

He said he understood why people supported the legislation.

“Rent control is a confusing subject because it’s obviously true that setting prices now will help people in apartments now,” Quattrochi said. “But it hurts everyone else, everyone who lacks housing now or has to move.”

Quattrochi also took on the argument that communities like Boston, Cambridge and Brookline — which had rent control 25 years ago — voted to keep rent control in the 1994 statewide referendum despite a majority of voters in the state voting to abolish it.

“Some say ‘let local communities decide,” he said. “You want to let local communities destroy 10 percent of their rental housing?”

In 2018, a National Bureau of Economic Research report found that rent control in San Francisco reduced the rental-unit supply by 15 percent.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker opposes rent control legislation, so for any rent control bills to pass, they would need a veto-proof majority — two-thirds of both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives.