Little Appetite For Rent Control Among Candidates for Mayor of Boston

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Is rent control the solution to the lack of affordable housing in the city of Boston?

Not really, the city’s mayoral candidates say.

Among the six Boston mayoral candidates that participated in WBUR’s questionnaire about housing, only one expressed support for rent control — although she didn’t say it’s the primary answer to the problem.

Two candidates explicitly said they oppose rent control and that it’s a bad idea. They are city councilors Annissa Essaibi-George and Andrea Campbell.

Essaibi-George questioned the economic value of rent control and said it could make the city’s housing and rental market worse.

“Housing is too expensive for too many families in Boston, but rent control isn’t the best way to fix that,” Essaibi-George told WBUR. “While rent control appears to help existing tenants in the short term, in the long term, it decreases affordability, fuels gentrification, and pushes people further and further away from our neighborhoods. We need solutions that get to the root of the problem:  better paths to homeownership, more affordable housing, creating generational wealth to break down systemic racism, and increasing equity across every neighborhood.”

Campbell pointed out another problem:  under the current law, Boston couldn’t enact rent control even if the city council and mayor wanted it.

“There are many tools in our current tool box to ensure our residents can afford to live here and stay here that I would implement with urgency, and rent control isn’t the answer especially when there is no appetite at the State House to implement this,” Campbell said. “Many of my constituents in Mattapan and Dorchester who are in owner-occupied residences and are truly making rent affordable also have real and valid concerns about how they would be able to care for their properties and make ends meet if a one-size-fits-all blanket rent control measure were instituted. The tools in my plan are practical, doable, and can be implemented swiftly to address displacement and our affordability crisis.”

In 1994, the Massachusetts Rent Control Prohibition Initiative was a statewide ballot question and it passed with 51.3 percent support. It prevents cities and towns from enacting rent control on most privately owned homes — although there is an exemption for mobile homes.

There was a rent control bill proposed in the Massachusetts Legislature last year called “An Act Enabling Local Options for Tenant Protections,” (H.3924). It had support from the progressive wing of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, but it never came up for a vote.

Three of the candidates for mayor of Boston candidates who don’t support rent control weren’t as direct as Essaibi-George and Campbell. They didn’t say that they think rent control itself is a bad idea but rather, addressed their proposed solutions to the problems. That includes acting mayor Kim Janey, state Representative Jon Santiago (D-South End), and John Barros, who served as the chief of economic development for the city of Boston from 2014 to 2021.

Barros kept it brief, telling WBUR, “I support the production of more subsidized affordable rental units.”

And Janey said she sees poverty itself as the problem that needs addressing.

“55,792 units are income-restricted in Boston — that’s nearly 20%, or one in five units in the city,” Janey told WBUR. “Roxbury alone is 55%, with Chinatown at 49% and the South End at 34%. What we need to do, in addition to building more affordable housing, is provide economic development strategies that help folks out of poverty. We need workforce housing for working families, and we must ensure that the eligibility requirements aren’t out of reach. Too many folks — folks who deserve it — do not qualify under our current system. We need to open up this program to even more families.”

Santiago said that while he thinks rent control could help some parts of Boston, it wouldn’t help others.

“I support ways to increase affordable housing options, and I’m 100% for certain policies that help stabilize rents and open pathways to ownership,” he told WBUR. “To that end, I cosponsored and advocated for the most progressive moratorium on eviction in the country; in addition to helping secure an all-time record increase in rental vouchers.’

Santiago added:  “As mayor, I will leverage the city’s AAA bond rating to help low-income families buy their first home, create equity to build more affordable housing, and I want to double down on resources and staffing for the Office of Housing Stability — something that I want to see be much more proactive in order to save folks teetering on the edge. But when it comes to rent control, Boston is a city of neighborhoods and what may work best in one area may not work best in another. As mayor, I would prioritize keeping families in their neighborhoods by preserving and expanding affordable housing opportunities like One+, doubling down on anti-displacement programs, and encouraging homeownership.”

Another candidate, city councilor Michelle Wu is for rent control — but addressed what she sees as its shortcomings as well.

“Boston is in a displacement crisis,” Wu told WBUR. “As our population has seen a boom, the number of children living in our city has declined. Families are being pushed out due to rapidly increasing housing costs, exacerbated by a transportation system in need of investment, and employers are struggling to recruit and retain talent due to the high cost of living.

“Cities should have the ability to use rent stabilization as one tool in our toolbox,” Wu added. “This doesn’t increase the supply of affordable housing, but it does immediately stabilize and provide relief for our families who are at risk of losing their homes, having to move away from job centers, creating a more expensive commute, and raising the costs of being low-income in our city. Such tools need to be used in a very intentional and focused way with all stakeholders at the table to tailor a policy that fits Boston’s housing market across each neighborhood, but we must act quickly to protect families from the accelerating displacement crisis.”

Although unpopular with economists who worry that it creates housing shortages and raises rents for those who don’t live in controlled units, rent control is politically popular in Boston. An April 2021 survey from WBUR showed that 76 percent of Boston residents support it.


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