THERE IS AN intense debate in progressive circles (behind the scenes, for the most part) on whether to pursue a ballot initiative for the 2024 election to enable municipalities to enact policies to stabilize rents in their communities. 

Some advocates and lobbyists argue against pursuing such a measure, claiming that it is unlikely to win and a loss would set the movement toward rent control back significantly, that advocacy organizations don’t have the capacity for a statewide ballot campaign, or that there is a longer-term plan that is better. Others have cited the housing crisis as an ongoing crisis, unprecedented in modern times, which requires immediate action. 

Despite the arguments from the advocates and lobbyists opposed to mounting a ballot question campaign, the voters of Massachusetts unquestionably favor the measure.

On the evening of August 2, I got a call from state Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge who explained the situation. A coalition of advocacy and labor groups (whom I will call “the coalition”) had gone through an exploration process and announced on July 31 they would not be pursuing a rent control ballot initiative. Rep. Connolly, who has been a legislative leader on housing issues since he and former Rep. Nika Elugardo joined with housing justice leaders to draft the Tenant Protection Act nearly five years ago, started getting calls from elected officials, housing justice advocates, and community leaders expressing their shock that the coalition had decided against putting a rent control proposal on the ballot. 

Rep. Connolly, motivated by this outreach, filed language for a ballot question which would lift the statewide ban on rent control and allow municipalities to consider their own tenant protection policies – submitting the paperwork just before the August 2 deadline. And the debate began. 

As a longtime strategist who has worked closely with many of the advocates of both sides of this debate, two things seemed evident to me. First, allies often disagree on matters of goals, strategies, priorities, and much more. Organizations themselves have multifaceted goals, missions, loyalties, and plans. And not everything that is best for the people is convenient for the organizations or advocates.

This is nothing new, and throughout decades working on progressive policy in Massachusetts, I’ve seen examples where the advocates disagreed, and examples where the voters were well ahead of the advocates. Allies acting in good faith should always treat disagreements as such, and have open, honest, and transparent dialogue with each other. We’ve had bigger debates than this one, and managed, usually, to move forward as allies, nonetheless.

The second thing that was evident was that, if Rep Connolly’s initiative were to proceed, it must be because the voters of Massachusetts clearly want it. This is especially important because a central argument made by those opposed to pursuing such a measure is that it could not win on the ballot. 

There had been a few public polls conducted prior to this process. Northwind Strategies commissioned a poll of likely 2024 voters in February through Change Research. The poll found a remarkable 65 percent support for a local option for rent control (25 percent opposed), and 68 percent support for Mayor Michelle Wu’s proposal for Boston (22 percent opposed).

A poll by the conservative Fiscal Alliance Foundation showed 58.9 percent support (26.4 percent opposed) for “a statewide rent control policy to prevent landlords from raising rents too much,” but much lower support for other wordings and question constructions. 

The advocacy and labor coalition that declined to pursue the ballot measure did not publicly release any of their polling. 

On behalf of the ballot committee formed by Rep. Connolly, I recently conducted a statewide poll to test the assertion that a ballot measure was not winnable. (The poll surveyed 505 likely 2024 voters and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.) I found, in fact, overwhelming and robust support for the ballot question. 

We tested the rent control questions in a few ways to double check other publicly available numbers, but also to look at the sensitivity of support to campaign messages – the arguments that are made for or against the measure – in the context of a hypothetical campaign.

First off, “the cost of housing and rents” emerged as one of the most important issues for Massachusetts voters (69.6 percent said it’s “extremely important,” second only to “inflation and the cost of living” and tied with “jobs and the economy.”) This is significant because ballot questions focused on things voters are already concerned about are likely to have more robust support than issues that might sound good but really aren’t what the voters care about.

We went on to test multiple constructions of the rent control questions:

If there were a question on the 2024 ballot that would give cities and towns the ability to institute rent control, would you definitely vote for it, probably vote for it, probably vote against it, or definitely vote against it?

Total for: 65.4 percent
Total against: 28.1 percent

If there were a question on the 2024 ballot that would institute rent control for the whole state of Massachusetts, would you definitely vote for it, probably vote for it, probably vote against it, or definitely vote against it?

Total for: 60.4 percent
Total against: 31.3 percent

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has proposed to stabilize rents in Boston by limiting rent increases to 6 to 10 percent per year. Would you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose this proposal?

Total support: 64.5 percent
Total oppose: 26.8 percent

These questions landed almost exactly where the other polls had them. The Change Research polling was very close to our tests of the local option and Mayor Wu’s proposal, and the test for “statewide rent control” was almost exactly what the Fiscal Alliance Foundation had for that similar question.

Unsurprisingly, voters in the Greater Boston area support the local-option rent control measure most strongly (75.3 percent) but it had greater than 60 percent support in every region of the state. Renters overwhelmingly support it (80.8 percent) but owners too support it, with more than 60 percent backing the measure. Among voters younger than age 45, it garnered more than 70 percent support, but even voters over 45 give it more than 60 percent support.

Of course, the most pertinent question moving forward with a ballot measure is not whether it has support now, but whether the support might change over the course of a campaign. Testing this can get tricky, and it is never an exact science. In worse situations, questions can be written to appear as legitimate message tests but manipulated in a way not to test voters’ reaction to a proposition, but rather their reaction to an uncertain outcome being presented as certain.  

Take for example, one of the follow-up questions in the Fiscal Alliance poll. It asked: “Would you support a statewide rent control policy if it resulted in less investment in maintenance and upkeep of current rental units?” 

This is a propaganda question, not an actual message test, and they got the results they intended to get – 26.7 percent support and 40.7 percent oppose. 

A message test on this subject would present the argument, or cite past history, and ask about those in relation to the voter’s decision of how to vote. The question that was posed, in contrast, presented the impact on upkeep of rental units as a certain outcome. (Imagine a question that asked if you would support a rent control policy if it had no detrimental effects and kept every child, senior, and low-income family in their home. A lot of people who don’t believe that would be the effect would nonetheless probably say yes.)

This is an important point because, in the public debate, people will cite statistics such as these and falsely claim they demonstrate certain success or failure at the ballot. But they do not.

The relevant questions then are whether the arguments for or against the ballot question would be accepted as credible and whether voters’ support would appreciably change. Our message testing showed that the arguments, in fact, moved the voters very little.

It turns out voters know there is a housing crisis, understand that rent control is an option that would give municipalities more tools to prevent displacement, and are unmoved by arguments for it or against it.

In our message testing, the top positive and negative message tests were:

Rent increases are especially harmful to vulnerable residents such as children and seniors. These groups can easily be pushed into homelessness when rents go up. Rent control options are an important tool to help keep people safe in their homes and not in the streets.

Very convincing: 54.9 percent
Somewhat convincing: 28.5 percent

Well-funded institutions such as the real estate lobby and huge development companies pour millions of dollars to fight against these measures because they profit on massive rent increases and don’t care about what happens to the residents of our cities and towns. But their scare tactics are only about protecting their profits, while this proposal would give cities and towns the ability to protect renters.

Very convincing: 38.5 percent
Somewhat convincing: 34.2 percent

This measure gives cities and towns important tools to prevent displacement. When rents go up too high, families are displaced and that hurts the cohesion of the community – harming the quality of life of renters and owners alike.

Very convincing: 37.8 percent
Somewhat convincing: 37.4 percent

Rent control policies in the past have frequently benefited people that don’t need it, because they simply got lucky by living in the right place. Housing policies should help people who need help such as seniors, young people, and low-income families.

Very convincing: 28.9 percent
Somewhat convincing: 36.2 percent

Massachusetts needs to invest in more housing development, especially adding low- and middle-income units to maintain the diversity of our communities. That is what will keep rents stabilized and give renters and owners more options and opportunities to meet their needs.

Very convincing: 28.1 percent
Somewhat convincing: 39.0 percent

When landlords are not able to raise rents, they don’t maintain or improve the units they rent out since prices are locked in. This can create dangerous living conditions for residents, especially vulnerable populations that need safe living conditions.

Very convincing: 25.1 percent
Somewhat convincing: 33.5 percent

While voters responded to the positive messaging much more than the negative messaging, neither appreciably moved their opinions on the question – the hallmark of a proposal that voters understand and on which they know their position. 

After positive message testing, support for the measure remained high at 63.9 percent with 25.2 percent opposed (note that both went down, marginally, as some voters wanted to hear the arguments against before recommitting). After negative messaging support marginally and insignificantly dipped to 63.5 percent support and 27.2 percent opposed. 

There are never guarantees, but those are the numbers of a winning ballot question.

A question frequently posed is, how could this be so strong when we hear that the real estate industry will spend so much money to scare people? That is exactly why a more careful examination of the polling – centering voters’ concerns in such examinations – is critical. The voters understand the issue and understand the arguments. But even more than that, they understand that the arguments coming from the opposition are in the interest of massive real estate companies’ profits, and not the interest of Massachusetts renters struggling to remain in our communities.

It is important to consider that voters are sophisticated enough to understand those simple realities. They are remarkably rigid in their support for a local option for rent control. And if progressive advocates are to center the concerns of the people most affected, then Massachusetts should have a local option rent control question on the ballot in 2024.

Whether those facts, or this opportunity, will influence the tenor of the debate within progressive circles, remains to be seen. Given the timeline of qualifying a referendum for next year’s ballot – nearly 75,000 valid signatures need to be submitted by November 22 – conversations among Massachusetts voters concerned about rising rents need to be happening now. Good faith allies should be able to disagree and still have open, honest, and transparent dialogue with each other. And that dialogue should be informed by data.

Dan Cohen is a longtime Democratic strategist who works in Massachusetts and in the Chicago area.