Saturday, June 22, 2024

State Rep. Mike Connolly at a press conference in front of the State House in Boston on Wednesday. (Photo: Matt Rocha)

A ballot initiative that could bring back rent control and establish other tenant protections was certified Wednesday morning by attorney general Andrea Campbell, followed by a rally and press conference outside the State House by state Rep. Mike Connolly.

The initiative, if it ends up on the 2024 ballot and is approved by voters, would overturn the successful 1994 initiative that banned rent control in the commonwealth and replace it with a law giving communities the power to regulate rents and evictions, among other things. The petition exempts buildings younger than 15 years and two- or three-family, owner-occupied buildings.

Connolly’s petition was one of 34 that Campbell certified Wednesday. Other petitions included plans to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, increase the minimum wage for tipped workers and remove the MCAS standardized test as a graduation requirement for high school students.

“I’m really grateful to say that attorney general Campbell has certified our petition to proceed to the next step of the ballot process,” Connolly said.

That next step will be collecting signatures — a lot of them. By Dec. 6, Connolly and his allies must collect 75,574 signatures, or 3 percent of the votes cast in the commonwealth’s 2022 gubernatorial election. If the petition hits the signature threshold, it will head to the Massachusetts General Court in January.

Connolly is confident that voters will recognize the importance of this issue.

“We’re here because we’re facing an unprecedented housing crisis. Never in our history has homelessness been this pervasive. Never in our history has affordable housing been this out of reach for so many people,” he said. “This housing emergency is displacing people from our communities. It’s pushing out vulnerable seniors and children.”

Much work ahead

The amount of work facing rent-control advocates can’t be underestimated, said Denise Jillson, who was president of an organization called the Massachusetts Homeowners Coalition in the 1990s, when it succeeded in overturning rent control laws in Cambridge, Boston and Brookline. “Can you imagine?” she said Thursday by phone. “That was before email.”

“These guys have an incredible amount of work to do,” Jillson said. “I know how difficult it is to get certified signatures and the heap of work it is going to take to get it done.”

Reaction to the petition’s policy goals was referred to Jefferson Smith, a political organizer for the nonprofit now carrying forward the work opposing rent control, the Massachusetts Housing Coalition. A voice mail was left with Smith on Thursday.

The MHC is led by a four-member board of directors that includes attorney and developer Sean Hope; Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association; attorney and landlord Charles R. Laverty III; and developer Ben Deb.

Political issue

On Wednesday, Connolly was accompanied at the press conference by other local leaders, including state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Somerville City Council president Ben Ewen-Campen and Somerville city councilor at-large Willie Burnley Jr.

“[The housing crisis] is the single biggest issue in our community,” Ewen-Campen said.

Representatives from affordable-housing and tenant advocacy groups also accompanied Connolly at the press conference.

Cambridge City Council candidate Dan Totten said rent control is an important part of his platform.

“Rent control, for me, is everything,” Totten said. “The only way we can address the affordability crisis in the city is to put a cap on the degree to which landlords can raise rent.”

Totten pointed out Boston and Somerville, both of which have submitted home rule petitions on rent control, as communities from which Cambridge could learn. “We need to build on the work in Boston and Somerville to figure out what makes sense in Cambridge,” Totten said.

Activists engage

Duane Callender, co-chair of the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants, said that Cambridge’s affordability crisis spans income levels: middle-income residents struggle alongside lower-income residents. He would like to see rent control passed in some form, whether at the state or city level.

“We can work together to make housing affordable for all people,” Callender said.

Bill Cunningham, also of the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants, would like to see candidates in the upcoming City Council elections address rent control.

“I would like to see somebody making a specific proposal,” Cunningham said. “Even those who said they supported rent control in the past didn’t put anything forward once they got in.”