THE BOSTON CITY COUNCIL gave its seal of approval Wednesday to Mayor Michelle Wu’s rent control plan and her pitch to reshuffle the city’s development agency, twin victories for the mayor’s campaign vows to tackle housing costs and reform the city’s development review system.
The margin of victory was strong on both measures, with both passing by votes of 11-2. The two dissenters in both cases were the most conservative councilors in the chamber, Frank Baker and Erin Murphy.
Both home-rule petitions need the mayor’s signature before then going to Beacon Hill, where they need sign-off from the Legislature and governor before becoming law.
“We’re sending a big message and look forward to continue doing everything that we can so that Bostonians can afford to live in this incredible city and stay in your regular neighborhood,” Wu told reporters after the hearing.
Wu’s rent stabilization measure features an assortment of rent-hike caps and eviction protections. Annual rent hikes with the same tenant in place would be maxed at 6 percent plus the annual consumer price index, which measures annual inflation, up to a maximum increase of 10 percent per year. It also includes requirements that evictions be for cause and establishes a system where renters can appeal and landlords can argue for special case allowances to raise rents beyond the cap.
“There is no silver bullet for solving our housing crisis or making sure that we are bringing our economy fully back up to strength, but everything does have to fit together,” Wu said of the package.
“This is a monumental act for the city of Boston,” said Ricardo Arroyo, the chair of the City Council’s Government Operations Committee, at the hearing. He said it is a first, significant step to “address what has been and is an ongoing long-standing issue of price gouging and rent gouging and displacement of residents of the city of Boston.”
Throughout the local debate, some tension appeared around carve-outs for small landlords and exemptions for housing construction within 15 years of the bill’s passage. The Wu proposal includes an exemption for owner-occupied buildings of six units or less. Councilor Michael Flaherty unsuccessfully pitched an amendment to broaden the exemption to anyone who owns six or less rental units, whether they are owner-occupied or not.
Arguing that these smaller landlords are not who the bill is “looking to target,” Flaherty described them as “people who have invested in our city. They live in our city. They’re good landlords. They’re good people.”
The amendment was voted down with only four votes in support, leaving Wu’s home rule unchanged. Progressives on the council brought forth no amendments, despite earlier gestures toward lowering the rent cap or reducing the timeframe for exemptions on new housing.
Baker, who has consistently opposed the rent control proposals, echoed the anxieties of real estate and landlord groups at the Wednesday hearing. Pointing to increases in affordable housing requirements, higher linkage fees, and potential real estate transfer taxes, “we’re going after an industry that has created generational wealth for the middle class in Boston,” Baker said.
Though the 10 percent cap seems “fair,” and recalibration to market rates between tenants was a welcome part of the bill, Baker said, the bureaucratic burdens were nonsensical. “We’re layering government on here,” he said, along with the cost to add a rental board. “Come on. When does it end?”
Real estate groups weighed in themselves later in the afternoon. Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which is engaged in a $400,000 campaign opposing Wu’s home rule measure, said the organization was “disappointed but not totally surprised by the Boston City Council’s vote in support of rent control.”
Vasil said his organization plans to expand its “Rent Control Hurts Housing” campaign as the bill heads to Beacon Hill.
Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune referenced the campaign in her remarks. “You know you’re doing something good when the real estate industry is so scared,” she said.
Boston’s bleak housing environment featured heavily in discussion Wednesday.
“The reality is this is not a normal market,” said City Councilor Kenzie Bok before casting a vote in favor of the rent stabilization legislation. “This is a desperation market because of the half-a-percent or less [rental] vacancy rate… It’s a ‘your money or your life’ situation, and that’s not the kind of situation that government should enable.”
Though progressives have said consistently that the proposal does not go far enough, those on the left wing of the council offered cautious optimism.
Sending this more middle-of-the-road bill to Beacon Hill was a compromise, City Councilor Kendra Lara said. “I’m really happy with that compromise because I think we have an opportunity to show a broad, unified front at the State House that’s really reflective of the popularity of rent stabilization,” she said.
Advocates celebrated after the vote. Mike Leyba, co-director of housing equity group City Life / Vida Urbana, exclaimed on Twitter: “We go on to the State House together!”
Boston is joined this week in its march toward rent control by Somerville. The neighboring city was already pondering rent stabilization, and, one day before Boston’s vote, Somerville City Council President Ben Ewen-Campen filed an order kicking off the process to craft and propose its own rent control home rule.
The state Legislature, long skeptical of undoing a statewide ban on rent control passed by a narrow margin by voters in 1994, may end up with at least two local rent stabilization home rules on its plate this term on top of an assortment of bills looking to lift the ban. Somerville, Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline all had rent control when the ban went into effect, with voters in the latter three communities voting to keep rent control in the 1994 referendum. All of the municipalities have attempted to undo the ban locally at varying points over the decades.
Before tackling rent stabilization, the Boston City Council approved a bureaucratic shuffle of the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
Wu’s home rule dealing with the agency, which faced recent pushback over vagueness from the city councilors, would abolish the Boston Planning and Development Agency and the associated Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, transferring their duties and powers to a new Boston Planning and Development Agency. It would reduce the scope of the city’s urban renewal powers, moving away from targeting “blight” and toward new principles of resilience, affordability, and equity. The agency’s board members in February expressed concern about a separate Wu executive order that would have “immediately” reformed the BPDA, and discussed proposed changes to its urban renewal powers, but did not need to weigh in on this home rule petition.
Wednesday was not about approving the grand plan to “abolish the BPDA” that Wu touted on the campaign trail, arguing that the legacy quasi-independent agency was overly deferential to development interests and unresponsive to communities.
“Complete abolition or reformation” would be a separate process of “multiple steps” involving reforms to the city’s zoning code and development approval processes, along with moving BPDA staff into city departments, Arroyo said.
“In the long run of that, you know, this is a multiyear process of updating the zoning code and thinking about the organizational changes that will best enable us to have a development pipeline and processes that are responsive and predictable and sustainable,” Wu said. “As we transition staff over to the city to be fully integrated, as we transition the decision-making processes to be fully integrated with city planning and decision making, we will see less headcount over at the BPDA but the same goals of ensuring that we can grow a city and do so sustainably and equitably.”