A GBH News review of public comments solicited by Boston City Hall shows a near split between those who favor reinstating rent control and those who oppose it.
Rent control was outlawed by a statewide referendum in 1994, but Mayor Michelle Wu is preparing to ask state lawmakers to revise the law and allow cities to create their own policies. Such a change would need approval first from the Boston City Council, then from both the state Legislature and Gov. Maura Healey.
Wu has long advocated an option known as rent stabilization. That term is often used interchangeably with rent control, but advocates suggest that while rent control freezes rents in place, rent stabilization allows limited increases and, in some cases — like in New York and California — can be tied to various economic conditions like insurance rates, water and sewer rates, and the regional Consumer Price Index.
Wu convened an advisory committee to study housing affordability 10 months ago. It has yet to issue any recommendations. But at the heart of Wu's initiative is a local option that would revive the city’s ability to cap rent increases with the aim of preventing renter displacement — a theme that’s almost certain to come up next week as Wu gives her first state of the city address.
Through a public records request, GBH News obtained the nearly 1,220 public remarks given to the Wu administration last year as the Rent Stabilization Advisory Committee met and held listening sessions between March and September. The comments were submitted through email, virtual listening sessions and a now-closed digital form.
GBH News flagged about 300 of those comments as originating from a repeat commenter and removed them from the final tally.
Of the remaining 900 comments, 39% expressed concern for the future of landlords, or outright opposition to rent control. Meanwhile, 37% expressed concern for the future of affordability, or outright support for rent control.
Twenty-four percent could not be interpreted as either favorable or unfavorable. Many though, contained inquiries or suggestions regarding how the Wu administration can best address the city’s housing crisis.
Dozens of landlords argued a rent stabilization policy would unfairly limit the amounts they might charge tenants.
“Rent control is a form of slavery where a landlord works and does not get paid,” said Stuart T. Schrier, a Dorchester real estate attorney and landlord. “If I sweep the stairs or shovel the snow, I am entitled to be paid. When I work overnight and paint an apartment, I am entitled to be paid.”
Olivia Chambers, another landlord and vocal opponent of rent control, commented: “If I want mayor Wu to decide my income, I’ll get a job at city hall.”
Chambers indicated plans to hike rent for her lowest unit from $1,850 to $2,100 in 2022 over fear of the policy.
“I’ll be sure to let the tenants know to thank the city for it,” Chambers said. “If increases are going to be capped, I’m going to make sure I’m at the top of the market by the time this mistake goes into effect.”
Rent control, other opponents argued, would also dampen housing construction — snuffing out the possibility of easing demand — and hamstring smaller landlords’ abilities to pay ever-increasing property taxes along with maintenance and repair costs.
The latter, some argued, would ultimately trigger a spate of sales to large companies, creating less flexibility in the rental market.
“It would be responsible if the city and state and fed[eral government] lowered our operating costs,” commented Tony He.
Dan Szatkowski, a Cambridge church pastor who claimed ownership of a trio of investment properties in the city, said he’s “already looking into selling.”
“I live in the neighborhood and manage my properties myself as a second means of income and for my retirement. I am not a corporation but I will be considered such. How is that fair?” he said. “[I] am not greedy but being a landlord is a business...I balance market rate and self subsidized units with long term tenants. If this passes all my units will go to market rate since I will no longer have control over my own property.”
At the same time, renters and some property owners lamented the bleak state of Boston’s rental market where old housing stock combined with astronomical prices make an uncomfortable and uncertain quality of life.
“It is absolutely crazy that a rent is almost $4,000,” said renter Cristina Ramos, a Dorchester mother who said she lives with a teenage daughter. “Specifically talking about the houses that have no type of changes, are never with things working, landlords ask for a monthly rent but they don't do their part and that is not fair at all.”
Vanessa Cine, a Cambridge resident who claimed roots in Brighton and Hyde Park, expressed a desire for state-funded housing, but said she’d “settle for” rent control.
“There are landlords who still have lead paint and barely livable units and charge ridiculous prices,” Cine said.
The comments also contained hundreds of suggestions for both tweaking and avoiding a rent control policy.
Some of the suggested alternatives include: a vacancy tax to discourage property owners from holding empty apartments with high asking prices; zoning reform to streamline the housing production process; and enacting a property tax freeze for landlords who live within the multifamily properties they rent out.