Rent control. In Boston, just a mention of those two words instantly sparks a heated war of words. The government policy which capped monthly rent was eliminated nearly 30 years ago by a statewide referendum. Advocates have never really taken it off the table; they have been quick to bring it up whenever the issue of affordable housing hits another urgent point — as it did during the height of the pandemic.

The shortage is even worse now and the calls for rent control louder. Boston — if you haven’t heard — is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, with the average market rate rental apartment costing about $3000 a month.

When Massachusetts voters said no to rent control in 1994, it was only operative in three cities: Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. Residents in those densely populated cities overwhelmingly voted yes, to keep rent control, which may explain why the final statewide tally was close: 51 to 49 percent.

Back then, proponents of rent control predicted that once landlords were free of restrictions they would raise rates. They did. According to a 1998 study, rents in Cambridge were 40 percent higher on formerly rent-controlled apartments, and 13 percent higher for non-rent-controlled apartments. But opponents remind supporters that rent control did not expand the amount of affordable housing, something that is desperately needed.

I was on the hunt for a rent-controlled apartment in Cambridge just a few years before rent control went away; I never got one. However, I’m convinced that rent control’s very existence helped keep my rent relatively affordable because some landlords — strategizing to be competitive in a rent-controlled community — wanted to get and keep good tenants. As I recall I had some yearly rent increases, but nothing like the current outrageous rate hikes, so high that many have been forced from their homes and communities. I shudder to think about how very different it could have been for me.

Mayor Michelle Wu campaigned on a promise to tackle affordable housing. Ten months ago, she convened a Rent Stabilization Advisory Committee to focus on housing affordability including a possible revamp of rent control. In last week’s State of the City Address, the Mayor announced she would send a Home Rule Petition to the Boston City Council. It reportedly outlines a plan to allow cities to individualize policies. She is not supporting rent control which caps rent, but rent stabilization which allows for rent hikes, linked to other factors like insurance, water and sewer rates, and the local Consumer Price Index.

Mayor Wu told WBUR she wants to help working people who could get hit with an out-of-the-blue rent hike because, she said, “that shock of a sudden, dramatic increase is just not something you can plan for,” adding, "we have no choice but to try.”

Mayor Wu is right to try, even if her anticipated plan is not a wholesale solution. Various proposed plans for modest and low-income housing and developers’ promises to include more affordable units can’t meet today’s need, let alone tomorrow’s. The mayor’s push for rent stabilization is at least a half-a-loaf solution and that’s not nothing.