Guest columnist Gabbi Perry: Why it’s hated, why we need it 

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    FILE - A "For Rent" sign is posted on a building, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Philadelphia. The federal rental assistance is running out in some places, which is putting pressure on the U.S. Treasury Department to shift remaining funds to the states and cities most in need. Treasury has shifted more than 2 billion mostly to states and cities with a higher concentration of renters and away from small, mostly rural states. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) Matt Rourke

Published: 5/6/2022 10:47:34 PM
Modified: 5/6/2022 10:46:04 PM

Rent control in Massachusetts has long been shrugged off as a failed policy that ultimately harms tenants, landlords and the housing stock.

But in a time of exorbitant rental costs and increasing evictions, it is imperative that Massachusetts legalize rent control once again — and the Tenant Protection Act, referred to the Joint Committee on Housing in 2021, is the perfect way to do so. The deadline to report this act out of committee favorably is Monday, May 9.

The combined pressures of economic repercussions from the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation, and exorbitant rental prices, call for the passage of this legislation in full. Tenant support for H.1378 and S.886 would force the Legislature to take a position on rent control and declare publicly whether they support the right to affordable housing, or if they believe housing is a commodity fit only to benefit wealthy landlords and the real estate industry.

Citizens voted in 1994 to ban rent control in Massachusetts. This decision was the result of a decadeslong campaign by landlords, realtors and rental associations to paint rent control as the source of all inequality and insecurity in the rental market. The well-resourced anti-rent control movement argued then (as it does today) that rent control decreases the supply of rental housing, disincentivizes landlords from maintaining upkeep and improvements, and ultimately raises rental prices for all.

Their campaign worked. By the time of that vote in 1994, only three cities in Massachusetts still had rent-controlled housing: Boston, Cambridge and Brookline. While the results of the 1994 vote ended with 51% in favor of banning rent control statewide, the majority of voters in all three of those cities voted to keep the policy in place.

Despite what economists and landlords claimed in their campaign, those benefiting from rent control overwhelmingly supported it. The fallout for low-income renters following the illegalization of rent control in Massachusetts was remarkable. In Boston, 8% of the previously rent-controlled apartments were evicted. And in Cambridge, annual rent prices rose by 40% for those in previously stabilized housing, and 13% for everyone else.

The reality of increased evictions, high rent prices, and housing insecurity in Massachusetts has challenged the real estate industry’s claims that eliminating rent control would stabilize market prices and housing availability.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, today, rental prices are so high in Massachusetts that a minimum wage employee would have to work 107 hours a week to afford an average 2-bedroom apartment. While most of the news on housing insecurity focuses on greater Boston, the housing crisis in western Massachusetts is just as dire. A report by the UMass Amherst Donahue Institute this year showed that more than 50% of renters in the Pioneer Valley spend over 30% of their income on rent.

The housing crisis in this area is disproportionately impacting people of color because 76% percent of Hispanics and 63% of African Americans rent their homes, compared to 33% of whites. This is a serious equity issue. With rising inflation and a lack of rental homes with prices in line with the income of the community, the financial burdens of housing costs are more than some people can work through. Today, some 113,000 households risk eviction across the state because they are behind on rent. On top of this, renters across the state see monthly costs raised by 10%, 20%, and even 30% annually with no infrastructure updates and no way to respond.

The argument for rent control could not be clearer. The Tenant Protection Act is supported by Homes for All MA, a collection of organizations including Springfield No One Leaves and Arise for Social Justice in Western Mass. This legislation would, along with other tenant protections, lift the statewide ban on rent control. While it does not mandate rent control, it would give municipalities the ability to enact rent control laws should local constituencies see it necessary.

As COVID-19 rental protections end, the need for legalizing rent control is only growing. The Massachusetts House of Representatives took a roll call vote on very similar legislation in 2020 and voted against it 136 to 23. Our representatives are elected to represent the needs of their constituents, but votes like that prove many are more swayed by the real estate industry than the needs of working families. With the reporting date fast approaching, legislators have a chance to show us differently. Too many of us are struggling. It’s time to demand better.

Gabbi Perry lives in Holyoke.

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