Citing surging housing costs, Somerville, state politicians advocate for rent control

A supporter of a bill that would lift Massachusetts' prohibition on rent control holds up a sign at a rally on the steps of the Mass. statehouse on Oct. 29. Alexander Thompson / The Tufts Daily

As politicians try to grapple with the ongoing housing crisis in the Boston area, some, including many from Somerville, are calling for the repeal of Massachusetts’ decades-old prohibition on rent control through a new bill, H.3924.

The bill’s two sponsors are Reps. Mike Connolly, who represents East Somerville and Union Square, and Nika C. Elugardo, who represents Massachusetts’ 15th district. Mayor of Somerville Joe Curtatone was the commonwealth’s first mayor to back the bill, and Somerville City Councilors J.T. Scott and Ben Ewen-Campen have declared their support.

At an Oct. 29 rally in support of the bill, Connolly, Elugardo and Curtatone all voiced their support for the bill as residents took the stage to explain how price increases have affected them.

Ruby Sosa, a great-grandmother on a fixed income, spoke at the rally as someone who has experienced a sudden rise in rents. Earlier this year, a real estate investment company bought her building, she says, raising rents far past what many residents could afford.

“I can’t afford to pay you $700,” Sosa told her landlord. “I’m on a fixed income, where am I going to get $700 from?”

Supporters of the bill, like those from Somerville, say that rent control is the only way to curb the region’s surging rents and help tenants like Sosa, but economists and property owners warn that rent control could worsen the region’s housing crisis.

According to Rent Jungle, a rental listing search engine, and Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, average monthly rent for all apartments in Boston has risen 12.5% over inflation since 2011. In Somerville, the increase has been steeper still with rents rising 28.76% over inflation.

Two-thirds of Somerville residents are renters, the median of whom spend 26% of their income on rent, according to a WBGH analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. The analysis also found that rent burden falls heaviest on low-income tenants.

The housing crunch is largely due to metro Boston’s booming economy. Since 2008, the region has added 2.5 jobs for every new unit of housing, the Boston Globe reported this summer.

The supply shortage is especially acute near Tufts, where the lack of on-campus student housing has students competing with residents. A February Daily survey found the average student paying just under $900 per month for rent, utilities and WiFi, even while splitting the bill with roommates.

Advocates say rent control and Connolly’s bill would help local lawmakers get a hold of the crisis by allowing them to cap annual rent hikes and take pressure off tenants.

The bill, H.3924, would repeal the statewide prohibition on rent control passed by a razor-thin margin by Massachusetts voters in a 1994 referendum. However, by 1994, only three municipalities in the entire commonwealth still had rent control: Boston, Brookline and Cambridge. Voters in those cities all rejected the prohibition. 

Connolly is adamant that his bill would not automatically reinstitute rent control, it would simply give local communities the option. He also stresses that this is just one component of a larger package of housing measures the commonwealth needs to implement, from building more units to granting more rights to tenants.

Somerville leaders are ready to move forward on rent control if the legislature gives them the chance.

At the rally, Curtatone said he would propose a rent control policy that goes after price- gouging property owners. To do that, he wants to cap annual rent increases just above inflation. He added that he would simultaneously continue working on expanding the city’s housing stock to solve the root causes of the problem.

“This is a battle to protect and maintain the fabric, the soul of our community,” the mayor said. “We need our state leaders and the governor to understand it is a crisis and act like it’s a crisis.”

Curtatone added that he understands the economic concerns about rent control, but he argues that rents that eat more than 30% of income and force long-time residents out of their communities is far worse. Additionally, he said that people should not fear the return of old-school rent control, pointing to recently implemented policies in Oregon that he says allow more flexibility.

Still, the effects of the rent control of the ’70s and ’80s are a central point of contention in the debate, and long-time Somerville residents may still remember when the city last had rent control in the ’70s. 

Steve Bremis, a local real estate agent, does.

“I saw rent control … and it was not good, in fact it was horrible,” he said. “Everybody seems to forget the code word for Somerville was Slumerville. There was a reason for that.”

Somerville implemented rent control in 1970, which ended in 1979. Under that law, the rents of some 10,000 units were frozen at 1969 prices and landlords had to petition a special commission for rent increases, according to a 1979 Harvard Crimson article.

It all came to an end in December 1978 at one of the most raucous meetings of the Board of Aldermen in the city’s history, the Globe reported at the time. Residents packed the chamber, giving impassioned speeches for and against the measure, which eventually passed 6 to 4

Bremis, who got his start in real estate two years later, now chairs the Somerville Property Owners Coalition, a group of more than 250 residents that formed to oppose the city’s condominium conversion ordinance this summer and plans to oppose rent control.

He says rent control limited the profits that landlords could make but did nothing to reduce the cost of purchasing or renovating an apartment. So many landlords, he said, took their apartments off the market or converted them to other uses because they were no longer profitable, while others stopped doing renovations. It will be the same-old story if rent control makes a comeback, Bremis argues.

“Why would I spend $20,000 putting on a new roof, or buy a property and spend all this money to fix it up if I’m going to get pennies on the dollar back from rent?” Bremis said.

David Sims, an economist at Brigham Young University, conducted an analysis that shows that rent-controlled units were less likely to undergo renovation or large scale maintenance and that landlords tended to forgo small repairs as well, reducing property values both in cities with rent control and those that surround them.

Furthermore, Sims found that because rent control increases demand for apartments but reduces supply, it gives landlords more choice over who they accept as tenants, and they tend to pick wealthier people who are seen as more likely to pay rent on time.

“You actually get more people who are poor and lower income living in Cambridge after rent control ends than you do before,” he said in an interview with the Daily. “If you can’t compete on price, you compete on whatever the landlord’s prejudices or desires are.”

Sims also cautioned that some evidence shows that when rent control reduces rents in one community, it tends to increase them in the neighboring communities. This is especially relevant for Tufts, which straddles two cities and where rent control in one could increase rents in the other.

Michelle Wu, a Boston city councilor, dismissed warnings like Sims’ and of her own former professors at the Oct. 29 rally.

“I’m an economics major from college. I’m told all these things about how ‘don’t worry, supply and demand will reach that equilibrium,’” Wu, a Harvard graduate, said. “We know from decades of experience, and even just from the five, six years that I’ve been in office, that hasn’t worked.”

Despite the rally and support from Wu, Curtatone and 17 co-sponsors in the legislature, the bill has gotten a chilly reception on Beacon Hill since it was filed this January.

Connolly says he and Elugardo plan to keep building public pressure in favor of their proposal and hope to get a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Housing prior to the end of the year.

However, Committee Chair Rep. Kevin Honan, a Boston Democrat, told WGBH his priority is the governor’s bill.

Wherever the bill ends up, Sosa, the tenant, says she is staying put in her apartment. After finding out about the rent increase, she went to a tenant organization that is helping her fight eviction. 

“No, no, no,” she said. “You’re not going to get $700 from me.”


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