Michelle Wu’s rent-control fight early test for lofty year-two goals

Mayor Michelle Wu’s initial proposed rent-control details are drawing some skepticism from both to her left and right on the council, setting up a tricky situation for a key priority for the mayor as she looks to shift gears heading into year two.

Reinstituting rent control — or “rent stabilization,” as Wu calls it — was a staple of the then-councilor’s campaign for mayor in 2021. Now that rubber is begining to hit the road, as she’s said should be the case for many of her priorities, it’s shaping up to be one of the first fights to see if the mayor’s ambitious bigger-swing ideas actually will go anywhere.

There’s no firm proposal yet, but Wu’s administration has been floating changes that would include looking to cap year-over-year rent increases at 6% plus consumer price index increases to a max of 10%.

The protections would not carry over between tenants. That’s called “vacancy decontrol,” a rule that would not limit rent hikes to a new tenant over what the previous one was charged.

New construction would be exempt from the caps for the first 15 years. The city would improve a rental registry and tighten just-cause eviction rules.

After these details began to come out, City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, the Ways & Means chair, took to Twitter to say Wu’s plans don’t go far enough.

“The policies being proposed don’t strike me as actual rent control,” Fernandes Anderson said, pointing to the 10% cap as too high, the 15 years as too long of an exemption and the fact that it wouldn’t apply to some smaller landlords.

“People are already barely scraping by,” she wrote, calling for a 3% to 5% cap without these exemptions. “The rent was already TOO high. In a sense, it was already out of control.”

City Councilors Kendra Lara and Gigi Coletta said they shared some of those concerns.

Lara said she’s looking forward to having more concrete details and council input as the process moves forward, but as proposed, the cap ” will give us one of the weakest rent control policies in the entire country in the second most expensive city to live in, it’s simply not enough. If we move forward in that direction we run the risk of being ineffective in stabilizing our neighborhoods.”

Coletta said she’s pleased to see the just-cause eviction provisions, but is similarly worried about the rent cap being too high. She added that she’d like to see a way of being tougher on problem landlords.

“Because there has been harm done with rent increases in the last 10 years, we really need to ask ourselves if this is going far enough to correct that harm and protect renters in the near future,” Coletta said.

Other more centrist councilors were not thrilled with the matter, either, but for different reasons. City Councilors Frank Baker and Michael Flaherty both noted the fact that Wu’s already pushing for higher thresholds for affordable housing in development even as the economy gets shaky.

“I am very concerned we are putting additional burdens on developers and property owners at this time,” Flaherty told the Herald. “Read the paper — interest rates, inflation, supply chain issues, costs and layoffs. We should be stimulating development and growth — not deterring it. We have an affordable housing crisis – that means we need to build more housing.”

Baker said of the assorted changes, “All of these things happening at the same time — it’s not sustainable.”

He said that while the 10% threshold is much looser than the law used to be, just the idea of rent control is going to “scare people away” from owning and developing housing in a time when the city needs it more than ever.

“We’ve got to build more housing — we’ve gotta build different types of housing. We’ve got to try something outside the box,” he said. “Rent control isn’t outside the box. We’ve tried it.”

But not everyone was bashing on the proposal. City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said in a statement that the initial proposal “shows great efforts” by Wu and her administration.

“The Council has more work do to make sure we are actually putting a home rule petition forward that will, in practice, stabilize residents in their homes,” she added.

A few other councilors, including City Council President Ed Flynn, kept their powder dry.

Wu’s office deferred to their statement earlier in the week.

“We continue to work with the advisory committee toward specific legislative language that would protect families from rent gouging and displacement as our city continues to grow,” a Wu spokesman said then. “We look forward to receiving additional stakeholder feedback before filing a proposal with the city council.”

Wu’s repeatedly said that year one as mayor was internally focused, getting City Hall working and staffed the way she wanted. Year two, she’s staked out, is when she wants to get rolling with the more ambitious goals she campaigned on, such as abolishing the Boston Planning & Development Agency, making police reforms, advancing a “green New Deal” for the city and moving ahead with rent control. This issue likely will be the first to cross the transom, and its success or failure — particularly with a punchy council that’s tangled with her before — could set the tone moving forward.

The state outlawed rent control by referendum in 1994, but Wu’s administration “soon” plans to file a home-rule petition to change that in the city. Such a bill would need the sign-off of the council, the Legislature and the governor.

Though Wu has allies in the Legislature who can put some heft into shepherding the bill through, Beacon Hill is littered with the corpses of once-hopeful home-rule petitions over the years, as the state lawmakers often stash away such city-originated bills, never to see the stark light of a hearing room.

Gov. Maura Healey’s office said in a statement, “The Governor has said that she is open to communities enacting local solutions to address their housing needs. She will review any legislation that reaches her desk.”