STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
EXACTLY 30 YEARS after Massachusetts voters narrowly prohibited rent control across the state, a long-running debate about whether to reverse or uphold the ban might once again be settled at the ballot box.
A small group of local officials, tenant advocates and renters came together Wednesday in a last-minute push led by Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly to move toward putting a rent control revival on the 2024 ballot.
Their filing launched an already-tense policy fight into a new phase, raising the prospect that — if the campaign can clear several sizable procedural hurdles — supporters might circumvent a hesitant Legislature and let voters themselves decide.
Connolly, who for years has proposed similar tenant protection bills without securing support from legislative leaders, said he believes “the public is hungry for action on these issues.”
“We are living in this moment of unprecedented housing emergency,” Connolly said in an interview. “Never in our history has affordable housing been this far out of reach to this many people, and never in our history has homelessness been as pervasive. If that isn’t alarming enough, what is even more alarming is there’s not a tremendously positive outlook for real solutions that are truly going to resolve this emergency.”
Real estate and landlord groups immediately began marshaling opposition to the measure, warning that it would stifle much-needed production of new housing.
NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate development group, told its members it is “strongly opposed to this ballot language” and working with “experts and interested parties to determine next steps.”
“Rent control will not address Massachusetts’ underlying housing challenges — as housing development has not kept up with population or job growth,” NAIOP Massachusetts wrote in an email alert Wednesday. “There is a broad consensus among economists that rent control policies reduce overall housing supply by suppressing new construction, forcing units out of the rental market entirely, and reducing housing quality.”
The question Connolly and other supporters filed would eliminate the section of state law banning rent control known as Chapter 40P and replace with a “Tenant Protection Act” granting cities and towns the authority to regulate rents and fees, residential evictions, and removal of housing units from the rental market by demolition, condominium conversion and other steps.
Those proposed new tools could not “deprive an owner of a fair net operating income” under the text of the question. They also would not apply to buildings constructed within the past 15 years on a rolling basis, owner-occupied two- and three-family dwellings, and government-owned housing.
It’s a narrower version of legislation Connolly filed (H 1304), which has just 13 legislative cosponsors and still has not received a hearing before the Housing Committee this session.
Connolly said he collected an initial round of signatures and filed the proposal in his own personal capacity as a renter, not as a state representative. But his action still opens up a new path toward action on a topic that has wilted on Beacon Hill due to a lack of interest among legislative leaders.
Connolly was not immediately able to say when his rent last increased or by how much, but he said he has rented housing his entire adult life and grew up in public housing in Norwood.
“I’m someone who has had to really worry about what my stability might be year-to-year or beyond, and also feeling as I do that homeownership is something that’s out of reach is very discouraging and is a strain that you carry with you,” Connolly, one of less than two dozen lawmakers who the Boston Globe confirmed are renters, said.
Unlike a bill, a ballot question would not need to win the support of top House and Senate Democrats, but it would attract a likely high-powered and expensive opposition campaign. During debate on an economic development bill in 2020, the House rejected a Connolly amendment that would allow local-option rent control 22-136.
House Majority Leader Mike Moran pointed to that vote in May, telling WBUR, “A lot of members will say, ‘What is the point of even bringing this up?’ Because the overwhelming majority of us took a position on this two years ago.”
Inaction on Beacon Hill has frozen Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s effort to limit rent increases in the state’s largest city, something she made a signature campaign promise. The City Council approved a home rule petition 11-2 in March that would stand up rent control in Boston, and lawmakers — whose support is needed for the local measure to take effect — still have not scheduled a hearing on the matter.
Wu has not signaled if she plans to throw her support behind the ballot question effort.
Asked if he expected voters to be a more receptive audience to the proposal than his House and Senate colleagues, Connolly replied, “I don’t really see it as an either-or.”
“In my capacity as a state rep, I’m very focused on continuing that work of building consensus. I feel like we’re making progress in these conversations,” Connolly said. “And then in my private capacity as a citizen and as a renter and as an activist and an organizer, this has been a worthwhile initiative to explore.”
Connolly said he made the decision to file a ballot question in the “past couple of days” as it became clear that, despite interest among renter advocates, no one was planning to take that step. He gathered about 15 signatures, more than the 10 required, all on the Wednesday deadline to file ballot questions.
According to Connolly, initial signatories on the ballot question include Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan, Somerville School Committee member Emily Ackman, Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants Director Michael Kane, Cambridge tenant advocate Duane Callender, “legendary advocate for rent control” Bill Cunningham, former Massachusetts Senate counsel David Sullivan, TransitMatters executive director Jarred Johnson, and Cambridge City Council candidates Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and Vernon Walker.
So far, no one involved has organized any formal ballot question committee with state campaign finance regulators, which would allow them to raise and spend money on the effort.
Mike Leyba, co-executive director of the City Life/Vida Urbana group that has supported bringing back rent control but was not involved in Connolly’s question, reacted to the new initiative petition by lobbing criticism at the Democrat-controlled House and Senate.
“Our communities are in a housing crisis, and rent control is among the most immediate and effective ways to address this crisis. People are facing eviction and outrageous rent increases right now; the legislature could pass rent control next week if it wanted to,” Leyba said in a statement. “It should not be the voters’ responsibility to bail out the legislature from its own inaction — it’s our legislature’s job to reject the influence and cynicism of big banks and the real estate industry.”
In 1994, voters approved a ballot question prohibiting rent control across Massachusetts by a margin of 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent. At the time of the ban, only three communities — Boston, Brookline and Cambridge — still had rent control in place, and a majority of voters in all three supported keeping it available.
The Small Property Owners Association, which campaigned for the successful ban three decades ago, dubbed the new ballot question “a serious threat to the growth of the Commonwealth.”
“This is a far-reaching takeover of the rental housing industry,” the group wrote. “Like Dr. Frankenstein, the proponents of this question have attached every bad housing policy to this proposal, thus creating a monster that will kill housing production.”
Public polling about rent control in recent years has produced mixed results. A MassINC survey of 504 registered voters in January 2022 found 41 percent support for allowing local governments to set limits on rent, compared to 49 percent opposition. In March, a Change Research online poll conducted for political firm Northwind Strategies said 65 percent of voters backed reviving local option rent control, compared to 25 percent who were against the idea. And most recently, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance found varying levels of support based on how the question was phrased.
MassFiscal voiced opposition Wednesday to the ballot question, arguing that it would lead to “a complete stop in new housing development, particularly new affordable multi-family housing and a complete halt in maintenance and upkeep.”
“There are good reasons for why the voters in Massachusetts voted to outlaw rent control in 1994, it doesn’t work,” MassFiscal spokesperson Paul Craney said in a statement. “They lived under government-imposed rent control and experienced its damaging consequences daily. Government imposed rent control will negatively impact living conditions, property values, and deter new inventory and it’s all avoidable.”