Friday, May 24, 2024

Families from El Salvador and Haiti face evictions from homes on Somerville’s Tremont Street after new building owners raised rents significantly. (Photo: Ryan DiLello)

Facing an unprecedented housing crisis, the Somerville City Council voted Thursday to draft a home rule petition that would enable rent stabilization, a form of rent control, in the city.

Passing the petition would grant Somerville the power to cap periodic rent increases on its own. And while rent stabilization won’t solve the city’s housing crisis, it could prevent the price gouging that housing advocates contend is driving residents out of their homes and the city.

It’s been three decades since Massachusetts abolished rent control, despite overwhelming votes to retain it from the communities that had it – including the largest city in the state: Boston, Brookline and Cambridge. Since then, rents in Somerville have continued to rise, most recently due to the green line extension, as they have throughout the region.

As residents “are displaced at the whim of the real estate industry,” the prohibition on rent stabilization has left city councilors with their “hands tied,” council president Ben Ewen-Campen said.

In October, tenants rallied in support of immigrant families facing eviction from Tremont Street as rent costs leaped under new owners BBD Holdings.

Sending a home rule petition to Beacon Hill once seemed like a dead-end, Ewen-Campen said. But after decades of skyrocketing rents, today’s political landscape might be more hopeful for renters seeking relief. A recent poll suggests 65 percent of Massachusetts voters would support a local option, giving cities the ability to institute rent stabilization on their own.

State Rep. Mike Connolly spoke at the meeting Thursday. “We’ve come a long way in the conversation around rent control. When I first got elected, rent stabilization – rent control – was still considered a far-fetched idea,” he said.

The council reaffirmed support Thursday for the Tenant Protection Act, a bill that would lift the prohibition on rent control. Gov. Maura Healy has expressed doubt that establishing rent stabilization statewide is a “solution” to the rent crisis but has indicated support repeatedly for local rent stabilization. Somerville mayors past and present have gone on record to support it as well.

The vote in Cambridge

Cambridge’s City Council voted 8-1 on March 6 in support of the bill, with member Paul Toner saying he’d be “the skunk at the lawn party” by saying Cambridge was doing enough to ensure a supply of affordable housing without returning to “the divisiveness” of rent control. Patty Nolan, though, supported the idea that Cambridge could use some forms of rent stabilization – while noting that a city-specific referendum in 2003 showed 62 percent of Cantabrigians opposed rent control. “It was one of the highest turnouts in 30 years,” noted Nolan, a small landlord herself. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t fully support many of the tenant protections in this bill. I can support it because what the bill says is that local municipalities can craft their own ways” to protect tenants.

Other Cambridge councillors supported the bill on the same basis: That communities should be able to have conversations and decide what works for them.

Eyeing Boston as a model

Some in Somerville went further during discussions Thursday.

“Ultimately, we need to make housing a human right,” Connolly said. “When it comes to this rent stabilization conversation, I’m really impressed by what the city of Boston pulled off.”

The Boston City Council voted 11-2 on March 8 in favor of mayor Michelle Wu’s home rule petition to cap rent increases at 10 percent during high-inflation years, and 6 percent normally. The plan will exempt newly constructed apartment buildings for the first 15 years, as well as owner-occupied apartments with six units or fewer.

Wu touted her plan as a “balanced” one, but a week before the council even voted the Greater Boston Real Estate Board lobbying and trade group launched a major campaign that sent mailers and digital communications to Massachusetts voters outlining reasons to oppose rent stabilization.

In an editorial for The Boston Globe, group chief executive and president Greg Vasil said the proposal would “probably stop development in its tracks.”

Challenges of the industry

Somerville councilor Beatriz Gomez-Mouakad echoed Vasil to some degree Thursday, but argued that housing affordability is of comparable concern, especially when it comes to retaining the city’s local workforce.

“I did not come to support rent stabilization that easily,” Gomez-Mouakad said. “I work in construction, and understand the challenges the industry faces with ever rising material costs and potential shortage of labor … But this industry is only part of the larger sector of the economy.” Rent stabilization would be “one of many tools” to retain the local workforce in the metropolitan area, Gomez-Mouakad said, noting inclusionary housing programs and other state and city funds were not enough to meet the need.

Somerville’s home rule petition is yet to be drafted. If approved, it’s unclear whether it will pass the Legislature. In an interview Saturday, Connolly said Somerville should consider expediting the process by replicating Boston’s plan rather than trying to break new ground with different parameters.

“The clock is ticking, the legislative session has already started, there’s a limited amount of bandwidth with which you can advocate to people in the Legislature, and we know we’re facing an uphill battle,” Connolly said.

version of this story appeared originally on Somerville Wire.