Boston residents in Chinatown, Mattapan and other working-class neighborhoods say their financial backs are against the wall as rents climbs higher and higher.

Frankly, when it comes to the rent control debate, it’s hard to say who is more grating to listen to: the angry landlords bristling with resentment, or the self-righteous activists who highhandedly dismiss opponents as plants for cynical corporate interests. 

We got a taste of the kind of debate that is likely to play out over the coming months on Tuesday night, as Boston Mayor Michelle Wu pushes for some way of reining in rising rents, up to and likely including some form of rent control. 

And let’s just say ‘maddening’ would my preferred, non-obscene way to describe it. 

Yes, the mayor’s newly formed “rent stabilization” panel heard heartfelt pleas from desperate souls struggling to make $3,000- and $4,000-a-month rents on modest incomes during a “listening session” that drew as many as 500 people. 

But the militants on both sides made their positions all too loud and clear. And the verbal testimony – limited to 2 minutes each – while impassioned paled in comparison to the heated, running commentary in the message section that ran alongside the Zoom-based event.  

True, there is very large gap between the political and economic philosophies of free-market-or-die landlords and activists who see anyone who owns more than just one or two apartments as some parasitic greedster. 

Yet both sides are united in their impatience with having to debate beliefs they clearly see as self-evidently correct and morally unquestionable.  

 Rent Control ‘Mandate?’ Hardly 

Just take staunch supporters of rent control, who advanced a novel argument during Tuesday evening’s sound-off session. 

It goes something like this: Mayor Michelle Wu not just won election last fall, but she also won a “mandate” to implement rent control. Therefore, the mayor’s newly launched rent stabilization board need not engage in any more debate about the issue, but should simply proceed with discussion and drafting a plan to cap rents. 

“The rent situation in Boston is ridiculous,” one long-time tenant organizer told the panel. “The election was largely won on the rent control issue. The city has spoken on this issue.” 

It is true that Wu routed now former City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George in a decisive 64-to-36 percent win last November. 

The problem is, when turnout is factored in, Wu won office with the backing off 20.77 percent of city voters. That’s not unusual in a municipal election, and it gave her the backing of a slightly higher share of registered voters than former Mayor Marty Walsh secured (19.51 percent) in his first election in 2013. But to argue that November’s result offers carte blanche on a particularly fraught issue like rent control seems a stretch.

To argue that November’s result offers carte blanche on a fraught issue like rent control seems a stretch. 

I suspect rent control devotees don’t realize just how arrogant and self-righteously dismissive this line of reasoning sounds to others, especially those without the same certainty on the complex, hot button issue 

“To the developers, your greed, blockbusting and speculation have driven up prices for all housing!” wrote a certain “Conrad,” one of the shriller voices in debate that took place in the comments section as others testified. 

 Landlords Have a PR Problem 

But landlords who showed up for the virtual hearing last night – and they were quite a few – could also use a few lessons both in public relations and basic human empathy. 

One gent, a landlord named Stuart, plunged into unfortunate rhetorical territory, comparing rent control to “slavery,” of all things. 

“Rent control is a violation of my rights,” Stuart wrote, adding “Everyone that has a job gets paid or the [attorney general] files a wage theft claim … Rent control is a form slavery where a landlord works and does not get paid.” 

A couple other self-described ‘small’ landlords – one apparently owned nine units, another supposedly three dozen – came loaded for bear and fired off a litany of anti-rent control arguments. 

Rent control, along with being unjust to property owners, could kill new construction at a time when the housing market needs all the new units it can get, they argued, saying new supply is the answer, not capping rents. 

Scott Van Voorhis

But when they weren’t vaulting into crazy-land, the arguments by various and sundry rental property owners sounded all too clinical and abstract, especially when juxtaposed against pleas of some of the desperate tenants from Chinatown, Mattapan and other Boston neighborhoods who spoke of trying to afford backbreaking rents while working multiple, low-paying jobs. 

“I am an elderly individual and I’d like to live in my neighborhood where I am familiar with my surroundings,” said 71-year-old Betty, who fears being forced out of Mattapan by rising rents. 

Talk of boosting housing supply – something that takes years to do – is all well and fine. But how that’s going help Betty right now as she struggles to make rent? 

 Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at   

Boston Rent Control Debate Needs a Dose of Reality

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 3 min