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Boston Globe: A battle is brewing in Beantown to bring back rent control

A statewide referendum abolished it 24 years ago

A rent control battle is fermenting in Boston, 24 years after the practice was abolished in a statewide referendum.

Althea Garrison, who became an at-large city councilor in January to replace a member elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November, introduced a measure this week to cap the amount landlords can charge for apartments.  

Ironies abound. Garrison, 78, is a self-described conservative, yet she is calling for regulating how much landlords can charge. Also, in a state where only 33% of voters went for President Donald Trump, she is a vocal supporter of the former real estate developer who in “Art of the Deal” described rent control as “a disaster for all but the privileged minority who are protected by it.”

And, Garrison was seated on the council after getting a scant 7% of votes in the 2017 election, putting her in fifth place for the four at-large seats. But, that put her next in line when Ayanna Pressley rode a wave of anti-Trump sentiment in November to become a member of the U.S. House’s freshman class.

Yet here we are.

Boston is a city of renters, a big chunk of them students at the more than two dozen colleges and universities that call it home. Only 35% of the housing stock is owner-occupied, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency Research Division. The gross monthly rent was $1,541 in Boston in 2017, a gain of 11% from 2010, according to a report the agency issued in January. That increase occurred even with the creation of 15,000 new housing units in the same period.

Zumper, a real estate listing site, put rents as much higher when segmented for unit size. In a March 28 report, it said the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Boston is $2,400 this month, making the city the fourth most-expensive market in the U.S. It's a gain of 4.3% from a year earlier. Two-bedroom units are $2,750, a gain of 1.9%, the Zumper report said.

Garrison, the city councilor, introduced a home rule petition on Wednesday to bring back rent control. In addition to winning support from the city council, it would need to be approved by the state legislature to become law.

Judging from a Boston Globe story on Wednesday’s city council meeting, that might be an uphill battle.

The Globe’s story said Garrison “presented her proposal as a needed tenant defense against the region’s continuing housing crisis, in which she said people are being evicted at an alarming rate without cause.”

Many renters are displaced “simply because of the greed and callousness of landlords,” Garrison said in the article.

According to the Globe’s story, three councilors – including two who are landlords – voiced concern that rent control would disincentivize property owners from improving their units, resulting in neighborhood blight.

“Homeowners who have a two-family like myself, or a three-family, have no incentive to put new coats of paint on or redo the hardwood floors if there’s an artificial cap on,” Councilor Tim McCarthy said at the meeting, according to the Globe. The article identified at least two other people on the 13-member council who are landlords.

The act offered by Garrison on Wednesday was hardly a surprise to anyone who follows her positions. When she ran, and lost, in 2017, rent control was at the top of her list of priorities.

After her January swearing-in, a Boston Herald reporter asked her what her priorities would be. She responded:

“Affordable housing — not the housing that they’re calling affordable, but it’s not affordable. It’s the same thing with the seniors. A lot of the seniors are being priced out of their homes. So, I want to make sure that they can afford to stay in the city of Boston,” she told the Herald.

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