Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

September 7, 2023

Rent control supporters lifted by AG's ruling

Photo | Courtesy of State House News Service Rep. Mike Connolly holds certification papers from Attorney General Andrea Campbell for his proposed ballot question to lift the statewide rent control ban during a press conference with Sen. Jamie Eldridge and other proponents outside the State House in September.

Moments after his pitch to revive rent control in November 2024 cleared a key procedural hurdle, Rep. Mike Connolly told an elevator crammed with reporters Wednesday that he was "incredibly grateful" to Attorney General Andrea Campbell for certifying the potential ballot question he had filed alongside local officials, tenant advocates and renters.

Should the question appear on the ballot next year, pending other major steps like a signature collection process, voters would be asked to approve a new law for tenant protections, which would allow cities and towns to regulate rents, evictions and housing units poised to leave the market. It would reverse a 1994 voter referendum, in which Bay Staters banned rent control.

Soon after Connolly exited the AG's office and celebrated the milestone with rent control proponents in front of the State House, criticism rolled in from real estate and landlord groups, among other opponents who slammed the overarching policy issue and constitutionality of the question vetted by Campbell.

"We're here because we're facing an unprecedented housing emergency," Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, said outside the State House as he held the certification papers from Campbell. "This housing emergency is displacing people from our communities, it's pushing out vulnerable seniors, children. As we work on this proposal, we are confident that the voters of Massachusetts understand this issue, and if they're given the opportunity to lift the statewide ban on rent control, we believe they will lift the statewide ban on rent control."

The Small Property Owners Association (SPOA), which led the push to repeal rent control 30 years ago, is poised to be at the forefront of opposing the latest rent control ballot initiative, vice president Amir Shahsavari told the News Service in an interview. Shahsavari likened the proponents of the ballot question, which he said is composed of "every bad housing policy," to Dr. Frankenstein.

"They've created a monster that will destroy housing production," said Shahsavari, who anticipates his organization will pursue email fundraisers and other strategies aimed at raising voter awareness of "productive solutions" to boost the state's housing supply.

The ballot question, he said, is based on a stereotype that property owners are greedy and do not care about their tenants.

"It's important for people to realize this is not an affordable housing option," Shahsavari said of the ballot question. "On the surface, it might sound good but it does not solve the problem of lowering rents that have become more expensive. The problem that we have right now is due to the fact that we have a reduced supply of housing that has driven the prices up."

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, a proponent of the ballot question and a sponsor of rent control legislation on Beacon Hill, said at the press conference he was forced to move to another MetroWest community after his rent doubled in the past year. Beyond Cambridge, Somerville and Boston, communities further west are also grappling with rising rents, Eldridge said.

"Obviously, there's a lot more work to do going forward in terms of gathering signatures and making strategic decisions," Eldridge said.

Ballot question petitioners must submit at least 74,574 certified signatures with Secretary of State William Galvin's office by Dec. 6. But no more than 25 percent of signatures can come from a single county, meaning signatures exceeding 18,643 from a county wouldn't count toward the total, a spokesperson for Galvin's office said.

Doubling down on constitutionality concerns raised before Campbell certified the ballot question, SPOA, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board (GBREB), the Fiscal Alliance Foundation and NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate development group, signaled Wednesday through press releases and statements to the News Service that they're not backing down from pursuing legal challenges.

Challenges to Campbell's certification can be filed at any point, the Galvin spokesperson said.

In a memo to Campbell last month, the Fiscal Alliance Foundation said the ballot question violates the relatedness requirement of state Constitution by improperly mixing topics -- and that the "plenary power" granted to municipalities in the proposal clashes with the Constitution's ban on petitions that infringe on "the right to receive compensation for private property appropriated to public use."

"The government-imposed rent control ballot question proposed by state Rep. Mike Connolly is poorly written and would make even poorer policy," Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the foundation, said in a statement Wednesday. "The Attorney General is absolutely wrong on this matter and we fully intend to work with a coalition to take this issue to the State Supreme Judicial Court."

The rent control ballot question "clearly violates" the state Constitution, said Greg Vasil, CEO of GBREB, in a statement.

"We will review the AG's decision and give serious consideration to appealing to the Supreme Judicial Court to ensure this confusing, overarching question cannot proceed," said Vasil, who was not made available for an interview. "Massachusetts has a housing crisis which can only be addressed by creating more housing in all communities, not by reverting to the failed policies of the past like government price controls on rent."

Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, said the group intends to appeal Campbell's decision "given the serious legal concerns and the negative impact the petition would have on renters and property owners in the Commonwealth."

Gov. Maura Healey, who has broadly said she rent control decisions should be left for communities to decide, has yet to share her view on the proposed ballot question.

"This ballot question was just approved by the Attorney General. The voters will have their say in November 2024 on questions that qualify for the ballot," Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Healey, said in a statement Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu's local rent control proposal is still awaiting a hearing on Beacon Hill after being referred to the Joint Committee on Housing in April.

Asked whether Wu supports the ballot question, Ricardo Patrón, a spokesperson for the mayor, said she "supports municipalities having the ability to determine whether a cap on rent increases works for their communities."

Polling this year on rent control has yielded mixed results, including a Change Research poll in March that found about two-thirds of voters would support reviving a local option for rent control. Meanwhile, a July survey from the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance found people who support rent control would waver depending on how the question is phrased.

Sign up for Enews

WBJ Web Partners


Order a PDF