January-April 2023Vol.XXXV No. 3

State Housing Policies and Their Impact on MIT Students, Faculty, and Staff

Rep. Mike Connolly

Thousands of MIT graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty are impacted by decisions made by our state legislature. One of the areas where the legislature can have the biggest impact is with our housing policies. As the State Representative for Cambridge and Somerville’s 26th Middlesex district – my constituents include many MIT staff and students. In this legislative update, I’ll focus on just one aspect of our housing justice work – the struggle to lift the statewide ban on local rent control.

As someone raised in public housing that was built and financed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and as a lifelong renter – housing justice is near and dear to me. When the voters of our community first sent me to Beacon Hill in 2017, rent control was still considered a far-fetched concept, but it quickly became an issue I championed, based not just on my own experiences and convictions, but also on a clear sense of the reality faced by so many renters here in Cambridge and Somerville.

What I figured out right away, is that when we talk about lifting the statewide ban on rent control – we need to be clear we are interested in seeking fairness for all concerned. Local rent stabilization is about empowering our city officials to bring everyone to the table – that includes renters, homeowners, housing developers, and landlords alike – to craft tenant protections that can work on the local level and win approval on Beacon Hill.

I’m convinced when we present rent stabilization in this fashion an overwhelming majority of Cambridge and Somerville residents support it – and with Governor Healey including local rent stabilization in her housing platform as well, we now have a real opportunity to pass meaningful tenant protections into law.

This session, I’m proud to have re-filed An Act Enabling Local Options for Tenant Protections in the House of Representatives (H.1304). Sen. Jamie Eldridge has refiled the bill in the Senate (S.872). The bill is also known as the Tenant Protection Act and was recently assigned to the legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing.

The Tenant Protection Act lifts the statewide ban on rent control and provides cities and towns with a variety of flexible options for implementing rent stabilization and other eviction protections. Our bill doesn’t attempt to prescribe the parameters of any local ordinance. We leave the decision on rent increase percentages up to a local city council or town meeting.

The reason for this flexibility is because the rental market – not to mention the political appetite for rent control – is different in different parts of the Commonwealth. But to have the ability to consider any local rent stabilization, we need the legislature’s approval. This is because the Rent Control Prohibition Act has been in effect since the mid-1990s. This law, also known as Chapter 40P, was passed in controversial fashion in 1994 over the objections of Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline, the only three communities that had rent control in Massachusetts at that time.

Despite the hurdles, our flexible approach – focusing on fairness and allowing for local decision-making – has helped us make real progress on this issue over the past few years. Last year, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu offered testimony to the Joint Committee on Housing in support of the Tenant Protection Act, urging favorable action. Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne also testified in support of our bill, as did many of our City Council members.

This month, the Cambridge City Council voted 8-1 and the Somerville City Council voted 11-0 to declare support for the Tenant Protection Act. Somerville has also announced plans to draft a home rule petition on this topic, and Cambridge officials are considering further action as well. It’s been remarkable to see how strong the support for this issue has been across our three cities.

In Boston, Mayor Wu recently submitted a rent stabilization home rule petition to the Boston City Council that will cap rent increases at 6% plus CPI, up to a maximum increase of 10% annually. Like the Tenant Protection Act, the mayor’s proposal would also fully exempt small, owner-occupant landlords and new housing construction for a period of 15 years.

When WGBH asked me to comment on Wu’s proposal – I found myself struck by the historic significance of it. For my entire adult life, it was almost inconceivable that the mayor of Boston would be actively working to return to a policy of rent control or rent stabilization – for so long, the issue was considered a “third rail of politics.” But thanks to our collective efforts over the past several years, we have moved rent control from the fringe to the mainstream – and that is how we pass bold progressive concepts into law.

The reaction to Mayor Wu’s home rule proposal was swift: many on the Right and some in the real estate industry blasted it as too aggressive, even going so far as to label Mayor Wu a communist for making this altogether reasonable proposal. Meanwhile, many of my friends on the Left also blasted the mayor’s proposal, saying it didn’t go far enough. I stand in solidarity with everyone who is organizing for housing justice, and yet I think it’s important to emphasize the need for consensus. Everyone should understand that the real estate industry’s strategy is to convince legislative leaders that opening the door to any form of rent regulation will only lead to never ending conflict at every level of government. I worry some of the initial reaction to the mayor’s proposal played right into that narrative.

After hearing all the arguments, the Boston City Council voted 11-2 in support of advancing Mayor Wu’s rent stabilization petition to Beacon Hill, where it now needs approval from both branches of the legislature. Meanwhile, I have been reaching out to colleagues on both the Cambridge City Council and the Somerville City Council to encourage both bodies to consider passing rent stabilization home rule petitions of their own. Each home rule petition will send a signal to legislative leaders that our communities are asking for these basic protections. And if Cambridge and Somerville home rule petitions can reach Beacon Hill by this fall, that would give us a window of at least 7 to 10 months to try to move local rent stabilization over the finish line during the current legislature term.

In the meantime, we will continue pushing for the Tenant Protection Act, which would allow our municipalities to craft these local ordinances without the need for any further legislative approval. I am grateful for the leadership of my colleagues, Sen. Pat Jehlen of Somerville and Rep. Dave Rogers of Cambridge, who have each taken on leadership roles in advancing rent control legislation, and for all my Cambridge and Somerville colleagues who are generally in support of this concept.

Finally, we should keep in mind that rent control or rent stabilization is not a complete solution to the housing emergency. That’s why my goal is not limited to any single bill or tactic. I am focused on advocating for a universal program of guaranteed Housing For All in Massachusetts – one that does more to achieve functional zero homelessness and supports public investments in affordable housing, with new revenue (such as a local option real estate transfer feean Empty Homes Tax, and new taxes on large corporations) along with a new proposal for a Massachusetts Social Housing Program and support for Community Land Trusts, first-generation homebuyers, expanded rental voucher programs, sustainability upgrades, anti-foreclosure protections, and so much more.

In other words, even if we win the battle for rent control, it does not mean we will have won the war for housing justice. Rent control is necessary, but not sufficient. The ultimate goal is Housing as A Human Right.

I’d like to close with the following fact: Massachusetts had rent control in the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1950s, and from 1970 until the mid 1990s. It’s been a common policy feature over the past 100 years. In the year 1920, our state legislature passed our first rent control act. The concept of limiting out-of-control rent hikes was supported by Republican Governor Calvin Coolidge. Then in the early 1950s, Massachusetts held a referendum on whether to continue with the World War II-era rent controls, and a majority of voters approved, as did a majority of our cities and towns. The real estate industry is going to do their best to portray this as a radical, hopelessly divisive issue. But an accurate reading of Massachusetts history will show that, in fact, rent control is a fairly moderate policy intervention. Indeed, it is today’s ongoing crisis of cost burden, displacement, homelessness, and unlimited rent hikes that is the radical anomaly.

As always, please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns about this or any other matter.

Yours in service,

Rep. Mike Connolly