City Council considers filing home rule petition with the legislature, reaffirms support for Tenant Protection Act
[Somerville Wire] – Facing an unprecedented housing crisis, the Somerville City Council voted Thursday to draft a home rule petition that would enable rent stabilization, a form of rent control*, in the city.
Passing the petition would grant Somerville the power to cap periodic rent increases on its own. And while rent stabilization won’t solve the city’s housing crisis, it could prevent the price gouging that housing advocates contend is driving residents out of their homes, and the city.
It’s been three decades since Massachusetts abolished rent control, despite overwhelming votes to retain it from the municipalities (including the largest city in the state) that had it: Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge. Since then, rents in Somerville have continued to rise, most recently due to the Green Line Extension—as they have throughout the region.
As residents “are displaced at the whim of the real estate industry,” the prohibition on rent stabilization has left city councilors with their “hands tied,” Council President Ben Ewen-Campen said. The council neglected to file a home rule petition in the past, as Beacon Hill seemed like a dead-end, he added.
But after decades of skyrocketing rents, today’s political landscape might be more hopeful for renters seeking relief. A recent poll shows 65% of Massachusetts voters would support a local option, giving cities the ability to institute rent stabilization on their own.
Rep. Mike Connolly spoke at the meeting Thursday night. “We’ve come a long way in the conversation around rent control. When I first got elected, rent stabilization, rent control—was still considered a far fetched idea,” he said.
On Thursday night, the Council reaffirmed support for the Tenant Protection Act, a bill that would lift the prohibition on rent control. Governor Maura Healy, however, has expressed doubt that establishing rent stabilization statewide is a “solution” to the rent crisis. She has, however, repeatedly indicated support for local rent stabilization. Somerville mayors past and present have gone on record to support it as well.
“Ultimately, we need to make housing a human right.” Connolly said. “When it comes to this rent stabilization conversation, I’m really impressed by what the city of Boston pulled off.”
Indeed, the most recent momentum on rent stabilization comes from Boston. On Wednesday March 8, the Boston City Council voted 11-2 in favor of Mayor Michelle Wu’s home rule petition to cap rent increases at 10 percent during high inflation years, and 6 percent normally. The plan will exempt newly constructed apartment buildings for the first 15 years, as well as owner-occupied apartments with six units or fewer.
Mayor Wu touted her plan as a “balanced” one, but a week before the council even voted, Greater Boston Real Estate Board, a lobbying and trade group, launched a major campaign that sent mailers and digital communications to Massachusetts voters, outlining reasons to oppose rent stabilization.
In an editorial for the Boston Globe, CEO and President of GBREB, Greg Vasil, said the proposal would “probably stop development in its tracks.”
Councilor Beatriz Gomez-Mouakad echoed Vasil to some degree Thursday night, but argued that housing affordability is of comparable concern, especially when it comes to retaining the city’s local workforce.
“I did not come to support rent stabilization that easily,” Gomez-Mouakad said. “I work in construction, and understand the challenges the industry faces with ever rising material costs and potential shortage of labor… But this industry is only part of the larger sector of the economy.” Rent stabilization would be “one of many tools” necessary to retain the local workforce in the metropolitan area, Gomez-Mouakad said, noting inclusionary housing programs and other state and city funds were not enough to meet the need.
Somerville’s home rule petition is yet to be drafted. If approved, it’s unclear whether it will pass the legislature. In an interview Saturday, Rep. Connolly stressed Somerville should consider expediting the process by replicating Boston’s plan rather than attempting to break any new ground with different parameters.
“The clock is ticking, the legislative session has already started, there’s a limited amount of bandwidth with which you can advocate to people in the legislature, and we know we’re facing an uphill battle.”
*although there’s no hard and fast definition for the two terms and both rent stabilization and rent control are often used interchangeably …
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire