With long-rising housing costs, some Massachusetts officials are urging a renewed look at bringing rent control, in some form, back to the Bay State.
That debate reached the Democratic gubernatorial primary race last week, after Attorney General and race front-runner Maura Healey suggested on Friday that she would oppose changing state law to restore the practice, which was outlawed under a ballot initiative passed in 1994.
“I don’t think that’s the solution,” Healey said when asked on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” whether as governor she would sign a rent-control bill if one made it to her desk.
Lately, the concept has been most prominently discussed in Boston, where Mayor Michelle Wu was elected last year on a platform that touted exploring “rent stabilization” to bring some version of rent control back to the city.
In March, Wu launched an advisory committee tasks with suggesting policies aimed at ensuring renters aren’t priced out of their neighborhoods. But any move toward rent control would require approval from the state Legislature. Wu’s advisory group is working to present recommendations on how to stabilize city rents in time for the next legislative session on Beacon Hill.
On GBH, Healey, a former civil rights lawyer, touted her past efforts to bring cases against landlords and property managers who declined to accept government-funded housing vouchers as payment from renters.
As the state’s top prosecutor, she and her staff “have been fighting unlawful evictions [and] unlawful foreclosures, working hard to advocate to make sure our rental assistance program is funded,” she said.
“I’m a big believer in making sure that those needing rental assistance have support, Healey continued. “But I think the way you get there, the overall picture, it’s not through rent stabilization. It’s through the production of more housing. We need more housing. We need more affordable housing across income levels.”
But soon after Healey’s radio appearance, her campaign was quick to frame her comments as indicative of her opposition to “requiring” statewide rent control, but not as opposition to a bill that would allow cities and towns to take up their own policies, according to The Boston Globe.
“Maura supports the right of communities to implement their own policies on rent stabilization,” Karissa Hand, a campaign spokeswoman, told the Globe in a statement. “She does not believe that a blanket statewide policy requiring rent control is the solution to our housing affordability crisis.”
Still, state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, who is running against Healey for the party’s nomination, took the time Friday to spell out her own support of a local rent control option.
According to her campaign, Chang-Díaz supports “giving local cities and towns the option of establishing reasonable caps on annual rent increases if it makes sense for their communities, such as tying annual increases to the Cost of Living Index.”
In January, Chang-Díaz testified in support of a pending bill to give municipalities the option to set rent increases.
“We need all the tools we can get to combating our housing crisis,” the Jamaica Plain Democrat wrote on Twitter in response to Healey’s on-air comments. “Local option rent stabilization is an important tool at our disposal here — we need to come into the 21st century and allow cities and towns this flexibility.
“When I’m Governor, I *will* sign a bill to allow it,” she added.
The campaigns of former Whitman state rep. Geoff Diehl, the GOP-endorsed candidate for governor, and Republican Wrentham businessman Chris Doughty did not immediately respond to requests for comment on rent control Monday.
On Doughty’s campaign website, however, it says his administration would “seek to repeal and stop any legislation that penalizes property owners who we rely on as partners to maintain and increase housing.”
On Diehl’s campaign website, the candidate says he would prioritize “expanding housing, including making housing options more accessible and affordable.”
Outgoing Governor Charlie Baker said in October that he would “probably not” sign legislation to allow Boston to form a rent-control policy. But Baker also indicated he would “leave the door open a little bit.”
On broader issues of housing affordability, Healey called Friday for the production of more housing, in part through “relaxing” zoning laws, especially those near transit hubs.
“We have real issues with housing, where rents have only gone up, housing costs are just skyrocketing, and the path to homeownership — which is really the only way to accumulate and grow wealth in this country — is just out of reach for far too many,” Healey said. “We have a shortage of housing, affordable housing, not just at the lowest income level, but really at a range of income levels.”
In a statement Friday, Chang-Díaz framed local-option rent stabilization as an important tool for affordability along with “first-time home-buyer assistance, funding streams to increase affordable housing production, and zoning reform.”
In her housing platform, she also calls for preventing displacement by boosting rental and legal assistance programs, as well as for more investments in transitional housing support and longer-term housing programs for those experiencing homelessness, among other actions.
Healey has not put put forth an official housing platform.
On his website, Doughty said the state is not building enough housing, and vowed on Day One of his administration to “set an ambitious goal for housing stock creation.”
“We will provide increased incentives for each town and municipality to build more housing and to streamline the building and redevelopment process,” the website says. “We will develop predictable time requirements on all approvals and reviews.”