Thursday, July 18, 2024

City Council candidates backstage at The Foundry in East Cambridge on Tuesday prepare for a campaign forum. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Most Cambridge City Council candidates support rent stabilization as a tool for protecting the city’s tenants, voters learned at a Tuesday political forum.

A Better Cambridge, a volunteer group focused mostly on housing policy in the city, hosted the forum. It gave each of 16 candidates time to address “exclusionary zoning” that makes it harder to build anything but single-family homes; affordable housing; and tenant protections, with moderator Bill Boehm asking follow-ups as time permitted. 

Rent stabilization arose as Boehm addressed the third candidate to speak, councillor E. Denise Simmons.

“Do you think it’s time to bring back some form of rent stabilization in Cambridge?” Boehm asked. In 1994, when Cambridge, Boston and Brookline had limits on how much landlords could raise tenants’ rents, a ballot initiative banned rent control statewide. 

Simmons responded: “We should do all that we can, including that, to keep our city as affordable as possible.” With this answer, Simmons set the pace for later candidates, many of whom addressed rent stabilization in one way or another. 

A few minutes later, in response to a question from Boehm, challenger Vernon Walker said he would “absolutely” support such a plan for Cambridge. “We need rent stabilization to not only help the marginalized, but to help middle-class income earners,” Walker said. 

Peter Hsu, a landlord, said he prides himself on having not raised his tenants’ rent in three years and would also support rent stabilization in Cambridge.

“I get it. There are different interests for different individuals. I totally understand that,” Hsu said. “It’s important to consider what is the overall good thing for our city.” 

A bigger debate

Cambridge’s discussion is again part of a larger, regional debate. In March, the Boston City Council, via a home rule petition, sent Mayor Michelle Wu’s rent stabilization program to the Massachusetts General Court for approval. The Somerville City Council voted March 9 to begin drafting its own petition.

Last week, state rep. Mike Connolly announced that his proposed ballot initiative to allow communities to bring back rent controls was certified by attorney general Andrea Campbell. 

Cambridge has yet to initiate a home rule petition, but the City Council voted 8–1 on March 6, with Paul Toner as the only opposing vote, in support of the Tenant Protection Act, the Connolly bill that would remove the statewide prohibition on rent stabilization.

Based on the forum and their responses to a questionnaire from ABC, 17 of the field’s 24 candidates have said they would consider a form of rent stabilization in Cambridge.

Candidate and councilor concerns

A few candidates have concerns.

Though he did not participate in the forum, Toner wrote in his questionnaire that his issues from the March 6 council vote remains, and he would “generally not” support rent stabilization.

“I support most of the tenant protections outlined in the legislation, but I do not support the rent stabilization proposal,” Toner said of Connolly’s ballot initiative. “I think it will have the unintended effect of causing rents to go up rapidly prior to its implementation – I think that is already happening based on the mere suggestion that rent control may return – and I believe it will reduce the production of more housing stock.”

Challenger Robert Winters provided a similar response in his questionnaire, saying he would “generally not” support rent stabilization. “If a rent stabilization program to cap exorbitant increases was proposed with no other provisions, I might support that,” Winters said. “Unfortunately, no such proposal has yet been floated.”

John Hanratty, who filled out ABC’s questionnaire but did not participate in the forum, said, “Rent control has proven time and again not to work.”

Examples to follow

Responding to a question from Boehm, councillor Patricia Nolan said, “I’m not sure how to enact rent stabilization, but Mayor Wu’s proposal is a really good one to consider.”

At Connolly’s press conference, council candidate Dan Totten said Cambridge could learn from the rent stabilization plans of nearby communities. “We need to build on the work in Boston and Somerville to figure out what makes sense in Cambridge,” Totten said.

The next forum for council candidates is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 12 at YWCA Cambridge, 7 Temple St., Central Square, Cambridge. The organizers are the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee and Cambridge YWCA.