As state and city-level moratoriums expire, there has been an increased push among housing activists to bring back rent control. But what can be done?
Then-Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu pledged to lift the state ban on rent control while on the campaign trail. Now that she has won and been sworn in as mayor, will she be able to follow through on the pledge for Bostonians?
Rent control, which first became widespread during the Great Depression, is when municipalities or states limit the rate at which rent can be increased from year to year. The practice is popular among tenants, particularly those who constantly face annual rent hikes, like in Boston.
Naturally, the practice is unpopular among landlords, because it limits the profit they are able to make on their properties.
Mass banned rent control through a ballot initiative in 1994, so any change would have to come at the state level.
Somerville, meanwhile, will soon have a new mayor in January. Katjana Ballantyne won that honor last month, becoming the city’s first new mayor since Joe Curtatone took office in 2004. Much like Wu, Ballantyne also pledged to restore rent control once she’s in the big office, though unlike Wu she did not fill a vacancy, so her job doesn’t start until next year.
Despite support from across the Charles, Wu will have to get the state on board with lifting the rent control ban. Although there have been some efforts by members of the legislature, Gov. Charlie Baker publicly said he would most likely not sign any bill that threatens to bring it back.
The governor recently told GHB that he thinks rent control is “unfair,” and spoke about when he was younger and had to pay a market-rate rent while his two older neighbors got to pay less rent. Reports failed to indicate whether or not the governor was pouting when he told the story.
[UPDATE: Since we published this story in Dig’s Dec. 2 print edition, the Boston Globe reported that a state housing court judge overturned Boston’s eviction moratorium, claiming the city overstepped its authority to block enforcement of evictions. In response to that news, US Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley released the following statement:
“The City of Boston’s eviction moratorium has served as a critical lifeline for Boston families at risk of eviction, and yesterday’s housing court decision to overturn it is a devastating blow to these vulnerable residents who once again find themselves at risk of losing their homes.
“As we enter the winter months, I stand ready to support Mayor Wu, the City of Boston and the Boston Public Health Commission as they explore every option available to protect renters, including by appealing this harmful decision and ensuring that emergency rental assistance funds continue to be rapidly disbursed to those who need it. I continue to fight at the federal level for emergency relief for tenants nationwide and for robust investments in rental assistance, and I reiterate my calls for the Massachusetts Legislature to enact the COVID-19 Housing Equity bill to establish crucial renter protections and expedite resource distribution.
“Evictions are traumatic and preventable life events that continue to disproportionately impact Black, brown and other vulnerable communities, and we must move with urgency before more families are unhoused as COVID-19 continues to spread. I look forward to partnering with my colleagues across all levels of government to prevent this impending eviction crisis and the destabilization that would accompany it, and will continue working to affirm housing as the fundamental human right that it is.”]
Our Republican gov is not the only one in the state who is failing to address the housing crisis.
Instead, the Democrat-dominated legislature prioritized turkey and gravy instead of doling out the federal funds when the House and Senate adjourned for the rest of the year.
Each legislative body produced its own separate plan for how to spend almost $4 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act, but said plans would have to be consolidated and approved before the governor could approve it. In a move that surprised few close observers, the legislature failed to do so before taking recess.
Both plans would have used hundreds of millions of dollars for rent assistance and public housing, while also shoring up the state’s healthcare system that has been inundated with COVID-19.
“The Massachusetts State Senate has acted decisively to support our state’s recovery and ensure we do not go back to normal but ‘back to better’,” Senate President Karen Spilka said in a self-congratulatory statement after the Senate passed its plan for the ARPA funds on Nov. 10.
Similarly, the House approved its own plan two weeks earlier.
Spilka pledged to make a deal on the spending plan, but came up short once Thanksgiving arrived.
Baker was left in a position to attack his partisan opponents for not taking action. Some may consider that ironic, since his conservative allies were reportedly poised to oppose that action were it to come to fruition.
“Today the Massachusetts House once again proved to the rest of the world why they maintain the top spot as the most secretive and opaque legislative body in America,” Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance spokesperson Paul Diego Craney said in a statement released in response to the House’s $3.6 billion plan. [Ed. note: It’s not every day we quote Mass Fiscal, but they have a decent point there.]
There was already a crisis in housing costs before the pandemic. After more than a year of economic pressure further exacerbating people’s ability to keep a roof over their heads, the Joe Biden administration appears to be running with the strategy of pretending like it isn’t happening.
Biden attempted to maintain the national eviction moratorium, but was rebuffed by the Supreme Court in August. Since then, landlords across the country started the legal process of kicking out their cash-strapped tenants.
As state and city-level moratoriums expire, there has been an increased push among housing activists to bring back rent control. Biden has yet to speak decisively on the issue, but reports about rent control regularly mention that one of the president’s top advisors is opposed to such protections.
In the face of tepid action from Democrats in power, there remains a steady supply of nationwide advocates fighting for the right to profit off of the desperate need for housing.
According to a policy brief from the National Apartment Association, which seemingly represents landlords who wish to evict more tenants while keeping rental rates outside the realm of “affordable,” “Rent control distorts the housing market by acting as a deterrent and disincentive to develop rental housing, and expedites the deterioration of existing housing stock. While done under the guise of preserving affordable housing, the policy hurts the very community it purports to help by limiting accessibility and affordability.”