NOW THAT Mayor Michelle Wu’s rent control proposal has passed the Boston City Council, the real test begins. The plan to dramatically reshape regulation of Boston housing must win over a state Legislature that often takes cues from the business community before it could reach the desk of Gov. Maura Healey.
On its surface, limits on rent in Boston should be broadly popular. A recent Boston Globe headline declared Boston is “a housing market for almost no one,” focusing on a West Roxbury mother now sleeping on the living room futon in a small apartment because her family couldn’t afford a $700 per month rent increase on their previous place. The mayor is right to push for a city “where housing is a given, not a godsend,” and a recent poll shows voters across the state broadly support her plan.
But the hurdles ahead of rent control are high. There’s also a foundational reason for why rent control might struggle: In politics, it’s easier to maintain the status quo than to embrace something new.
If rent control passes, it will be because Mayor Wu, her allies, and the advocacy groups leading the charge are able to convince the public – and state lawmakers – that Massachusetts simply can’t afford inaction. With Bay Staters leaving for cheaper locales in surprising numbers, securing changes that cap rent increases would be a big victory – a sign that Massachusetts recognizes the damage that high costs are inflicting on residents. It would also be a sign that Mayor Wu might be able to deliver on her larger goals: a Green New Deal in Boston and free public transportation.
Mayor Wu and her team know how to execute a winning campaign, and securing an 11-2 vote for her rent control plan in the Boston City Council is proof. And they would rightfully contend that it is just one piece in a large housing puzzle, which includes stronger affordable housing commitments, the creation and preservation of more affordable housing, and a 2 percent tax on real estate transactions of $2 million or more. The plan is not rent control or bust.
But what will it take to get rent control over the line in the Legislature? It’s an old campaign maxim that you have to tell your own story, or someone else will tell it for you. That’s what the Greater Boston Real Estate Board is trying to do. Their campaign, “Rent Control Hurts Housing,” is spending $400,000 on voter contact – and it’s likely to escalate from there. MassLandlords, the landlord advocacy organization, is focused on describing the last round of rent control as burdensome and unequal.
Here is what can be done to go on offense.
Spotlight tenants, and their struggle with their landlords The campaign for rent control will hinge on the plight of everyday Bostonians and how out-of-control rent increases are pushing them out. We all connect with well-told stories – and Massachusetts elected officials are no different. But in the first Boston City Council hearing on rent control, testimony from community members didn’t come until the end of a six-hour hearing – a quirk of scheduling. Going forward, tenant stories need to drive this discussion, and one way to elevate them is to call on Bostonians to share videos on social media describing how rent is pushing them to the brink. The mayor’s team and allies need to find ways to highlight the most dramatic examples of housing injustice.
Take tours, hold roundtables, and create moments For this effort to overcome long odds, the issue must be impossible to ignore. Advocates need to find ways to get rent control in the news, and that means giving media outlets new angles to cover it. That could include: a roundtable with economists who support rent control; tours of pricey Boston apartments; a mayoral trip to Gateway Cities to speak with Bostonians who have left; rent control town halls in city neighborhoods where rent increases are the most painful. The term “rent burdened” needs to enter everyone’s vocabulary. Rallies outside the State House are a staple, but media outlets will need more than that.
Don’t go it alone Massachusetts rents are nearly 50 percent higher than the national average. High rents impact just about every apartment near an MBTA stop, and there are many cities and towns – led by progressives – that could benefit from a rent control policy. Boston would have a stronger case to make on Beacon Hill if the mayor’s team can get nearby mayors (Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui), members of the Massachusetts Black & Latino Legislative Caucuses, and members of the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus on board.
Take the fight national High rents have become a problem in many US cities. Visit the places where rent control is already established. San Francisco and New York are the two clearest examples, but rent control is now being explored in Nevada, more cities in California, Colorado, and Illinois.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren is one of 50 members of Congress calling on President Biden to pursue “all possible strategies” to protect renters. Now is the time to put rent control on the national stage – with Mayor Wu visits to Washington, DC, New York City, California, and more – so that Massachusetts can no longer ignore it.
There are obstacles standing in the way of rent control, but nobody should bet against Mayor Wu’s ability to make change. There are a lot of ways to get this across the finish line, but the campaign needs to start as soon as possible given the fight ahead.
Alex Bloom is an executive vice president at SKDK, a national communications and Democratic political consulting firm. He lives in Somerville and co-leads the firm’s New England practice.