The growing jumble of new luxury skyrises on Boston’s skyline has acted as a red flag for some progressive activists, who are more apt to see housing as a limited resource that the rich are unfairly monopolizing.

A progressive backlash against New York’s powerful real estate industry could provide a preview of things to come here in Massachusetts, where activists are increasingly turning their wrath on developers and landlords. 

Empire State lawmakers this year passed new regulations making it harder for landlords to raise rents, while the Big Apple boosted both its mansion tax on sales of $2 million and a separate transfer tax on homes and condos worth more than $2 million. 

The most high-profile example of this backlash came in early 2019, when Amazon scuttled plans to build its H2Q in New York’s Long Island City amid fierce opposition over proposed tax breaks and other issues. 

And leading the charge in New York have been a wave of newlyelected, progressive, Democratic lawmakers, who campaigned on an anti-real-estate industry platform, refusing to take campaign contributions from developers, The New York Times recently noted. 

Oh, But It Can Happen Here 

While Massachusetts Democrats have traditionally been relatively supportive of efforts to building more housing, don’t think something similar can’t happen here, especially with the party’s left wing on the rise in the wake of veteran Congressman Mike Capuano’s defeat last year at the hands of then-Boston City Councilor Ayana Pressley. 

In fact, there are growing signs the estate industry here in the Bay State, and, in particular, Greater Boston, is in for a rougher ride in the next few years. 

“Our Revolution” groups inspired by Bernie Sanders are railing about luxury housing and pushing back against zoning changes in uberexpensive Cambridge and Somerville that would pave the way for more badly needed housing. 

Anti-housing groups are also making their voices heard in upscale suburbs like Newton and Weston, working to scale back or nix altogether plans for hundreds of new apartments. 

On a statewide level, activists are lobbying for a return of rent control, which would involve repealing legislation passed in 1994 that killed laws in Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline that capped rents. 

The bill has strong support elected officials in Somerville, which, along with Boston and Cambridge, were the only three communities to have rent control ordinances on the books when the state law passed. 

And in Boston, the City Council last week passed a tax of up to 2 percent on all real estate transactions over $2 million, though it will have to be approved first by the state legislature before it can go into effect. 

Real Estate Has Allies 

Like in New York, the growing jumble of new luxury skyrises taking shape on Boston’s skyline has acted as a red flag for some progressive activists, who are more apt to see housing as a limited resource that the rich are unfairly monopolizing, rather than a market in which prices and rents move according to the laws of supply and demand. 

However, in some ways, the real estate industry in the Boston area appears better positioned to fight back than their counterparts in New York. 

Developers, landlords, commercial property owners and other players in New York have learned the hard way the power of grassroots politicking and are now teaming up with trade unions to make their case to the public. 

By contrast, developers have long turned to trade unions in Boston, from ironworkers to electricians, to provide street-corner political muscle in support of their plans. 

And Boston mayors have historically been strong supporters of building more housing in hopes of stabilizing the market, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh leading an ambitious plan to get 69,000 new homes, condos and apartments built by 2030. 

That said, frustration over the continued rise of home prices and rents is providing political fuel for activists in Boston and beyond who want a very different approach to dealing with the housing crisis, one involving a combination of rent control and more restrictions on the construction of new luxury housing. 

It’s a bandwagon the NIMBY elements out there have only been all too happy to jump on. 

Few Remember the Lean Years 

Of course, there is little, if any, awareness that while a lot is certainly getting built right now, it is in response to more than two decades in which the level of new housing construction fell well below the historic average, both for Massachusetts and the nation. 

A return to rent control would also be a return to a time when literally no major new apartment buildings got built in Boston, a stretch from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. 

Scott Van Voorhis

Those lean years are one reason the market got so out of whack to begin with, and the same thing, only worse, would happen if activists managed to resurrect rent control. 

Similarly, driving luxury developers out of town won’t stop gentrification, but will only make it that much worse. Robbed of new luxury digs, the rich will simply buy up or rent older properties already on the market, as happened in the South End and Charlestown starting 40 years ago. 

The argument that things could be even worse than they are now is always a hard one to make. 

But it is one that housing supporters in Greater Boston and across the state will just have to work with. 

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

Real Estate Is in for a Rough Ride

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min