Latest push for rent control generates intense debate on Beacon Hill

Had the city of Chelsea been allowed to put a cap in place on how much landlords could raise rent, La Colaborativa general manager Gladys Vega said on Tuesday, COVID-19 might not have charged a so heavy a toll on the community.

As supporters of rescinding the statewide ban on rent control policies made their final push after years of unsuccessful efforts, Vega linked the controversial proposal to the frequency overcrowded living conditions in Chelsea which contribute to the spread of the virus.

The city was one of the hardest-hit cities in the state during the pandemic, with its population of nearly 40,000 totaling more than 12,000 confirmed cases and 237 deaths.

“Chelsea has been hit hard by the pandemic, and I’m telling you, if our residents and families had had apartments that they could afford and that they could live individually in their own apartments and not sublet, we wouldn’t have lost so many lives and we would have been better off, ”Vega told the housing committee.

Over the years, legislative leaders have shown little appetite to reconsider the law that prohibits towns and villages from limiting rent increases, implemented after voters narrowly approved a voting question supported by the voters. owners in 1994.

The latest push, however, has sparked intense debate: with several bills to allow local rent control options on the agenda, housing committee co-chair Senator John Keenan said at the outset from Tuesday’s hearing that about 160 people had registered to testify. , projecting “nearly eight hours of testimony”.

Homeowners and real estate industry groups continue to push to keep the ban in place, arguing that paving the way for towns and villages to pursue rent controls would reduce the supply of available housing and reduce tax revenues. local land companies.

The National Apartment Association released an analysis on Monday warning that imposing a 3% annual cap on increasing apartment rents could prevent developers in Massachusetts from building 16,629 units of new housing over the next decade and jeopardize an additional 1,995 units by reducing maintenance and repair costs.

Together, those numbers would represent more than a third of the more than 48,000 units the state needs to meet demand through 2030, said the NAA and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which represents thousands of homeowners. real estate in the region.

In Boston, industry-backed groups said a 3% rent cap would prevent the construction of 739 new units each year and forgo $ 2.3 million in property tax revenue for the city.

“Imposing artificial and arbitrary limits on rents interferes with the market’s ability to react naturally to changing economic forces. Rent control destabilizes the rental market and decreases affordability,” wrote the president and CEO of the NAA, Bob Pinnegar, testifying before committee. “Policies that increase the diffusion of rent controls are not the right political solution. Instead, we encourage the Joint Housing Committee to consider housing policies that have been proven to successfully increase access to quality, affordable housing and properly target assistance to weak and moderate people. – income tenants who need help. “

Legislation before the panel would not guarantee the return of rent control. Instead, several proposals aim to empower cities and towns to implement the policy if their leaders and voters support it.

A bill (H 1378 / S 886) would include rent control among a range of several tenant protection policies that municipalities could deploy. The bill would give local authorities ample bandwidth to set their own conditions for regulating rent, although it would require participating municipalities to only allow tenants who meet “income-based eligibility requirements” to access. rent-controlled units.

Another proposal (H 1440 / S 889) focuses only on restricting rents and evictions, capping an annual increase in rents for covered dwellings either at the one-year increase in the consumer price index. , or 5%, whichever is lower.

Both sets of bills would exempt owner-occupied buildings of three units or less and newly constructed homes from the limit on rent increases.

“This responds to one of the arguments against (rent control) and in fact would stimulate investment in building new units,” said Senator Patricia Jehlen, a Democrat from Somerville and one of the main sponsors of the projects. of narrower scope.

With their public efforts focused on both the damage caused during the COVID-19 crisis as well as the lack of available and affordable housing statewide, supporters of rent control are expected to face continued opposition from the government. Republican Governor Charlie Baker and a quiet response. of the best Democrats in the legislature.

Baker said in October he “probably wouldn’t” sign a law reinstating rent control options if any of them landed on his desk, although he said he would “leave the door for a bit. opened”.

“I lived for several years in Boston paying market rent when I was young next to two apartments that had older people earning more than me paying about half of what I paid in. rent because their apartments were rent controlled and mine was not, “Baker said in an interview with GBH News. “As we all know, this was in many ways one of the biggest problems people have with rent control in general, that is, it didn’t treat everyone to the same way and your income had nothing to do with whether or not you have rent controlled. apartment. “

The arrival of new political figures, and the opportunity to propose new safeguards for rent control, could change the outlook. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has campaigned to bring back some form of rent control to tackle housing instability and soaring prices. In December, a month after starting the city’s leadership position, Wu announced that she would convene a rent stabilization advisory group and seek to draft statewide legislation for the session. legislative 2023-2024.

In a virtual rally ahead of the housing commission hearing, Wu said opponents often present rent control as a “scary” proposition that will cause economic damage to an area.

“We know that other cities across the country that have put in place stabilization and rent control see it working, find that it doesn’t come with the sky falling and some of the consequences that naysayers would have you believe Wu said. “It means people come first over profit. It means we are working towards a vision of cities where everyone is welcome and everyone has a place to call home.”

Baker’s decision not to get re-elected also leaves the field of governors wide open. If the ultimate winner of this race comes to embrace rent control options at the local level, the combined pressure from the governor and mayor of the state’s largest city could change the calculation of legislative leaders.

Market trends have been a big contributor to the argument that Rep. Nika Elugardo, who co-tabled the multi-pronged tenant protection bill alongside Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge and Sen. Adam Gomez of Springfield, did to his colleagues.

She cited statistics from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which found that more than three-quarters of very low-income households in Massachusetts, defined as income of $ 32,430 or less for a family of four, pay at least 30%. of their monthly income only. on housing costs and utilities.

“If you search for Chapter 40P of the Massachusetts General Law on Google, you will see the objective. You click on the goal and it says, “This policy is based on the belief that the public is best served by free market rental rates,” “Elugardo, a Democrat from Boston, said, referring to the language adopted via the 1994 ballot question. “Does anyone believe it any more? Totally out of control rental rates in the free market? If we ever believed that, if that was a statement we were debating here ‘time, we don’t even debate that anymore. “

In the last session, the housing committee favorably approved two bills that would allow towns and villages to limit the amount that landlords could raise in rent with three-quarters of its members in favor, but both proposals are died without a vote in the House. and the programming committee.

The rent regulation proposals were released on Tuesday amid a constant escalation in house and condo prices, and continued efforts by the state government, through a variety of programs, to preserve and build more housing. affordable and to help ensure low-income residents can cover their housing costs. .

Advocates of rent controls say the measure could soften increases that exceed the statewide trend and put undue pressure on tenants. Isaac Simon Hodes, director of Lynn United for Change, said he received a call last week from a tenant who is due to leave in 30 days if she cannot afford a rent increase from $ 1,300 to $ 3,000 per month.

In Somerville, said Jehlen, “we often see extraordinary rent increases of $ 500 to $ 900 per month.”

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