Like a golden apple of Hesperides, a proposal from state Reps. Nika Elugardo of Boston and Mike Connolly of Cambridge landed in the middle of the Massachusetts political scene Monday, setting key factions trying to solve the state’s housing crisis against each other. 

As first reported by the Boston Globe, the progressive duo believes allowing towns and cities to impose rent control measures is a key step in fighting the state’s housing crisis, despite decades of evidence showing the idea does more to harm renters by killing new apartment construction. They plan to introduce a proposal that would allow municipalities to do just that and overturn the results of a 1994 referendum that outlawed the policies.  

As frightening as the prospect of the Elugardo/Connolly bill may be to some – called it “a step on the way to collective control” of rental housing in a fundraising email last week – the issue is a red herring that threatens to distract everyone from efforts to get Gov. Charlie Baker’s Act to Promote Housing Choice passed as soon as possible. 

Any rent control bill is unlikely to pass the House of Representatives this year under famously cautious House Speaker Bob DeLeoFurthermore, with Baker in the State House’s corner office a truly monumental coalition in favor of rent control would have to be built to override what would surely be his vehement veto.  

[Rent control is] exactly the wrong direction we should go,” he told the State House News Service in the wake of the Globe report. “We don’t have a lot of inventory, and what we have ends up being really expensive, so that pushes people farther and farther away from where they go to school or work to find a place to live.” 

Against that backdrop, the Elugardo/Connolly bill seems more like an effort to move the Overton Window about what solutions to the state’s housing crisis are welcome in “mainstream” political debate.  

Connolly hinted as much in an interview with the News Service the same day it spoke with Baker. 

“My message is: let’s have a comprehensive plan that includes additional pieces. If the governor were to come on board and support things like tenant protections, it would increase support for his bill,” he said. 

With rent control a nonstarter in the current political and factual environment, the bill’s other provisions become much more significant, like “rent stabilization” and a provision to let renters put up-front costs like a security deposit or a broker’s fee onto a payment plan. 

With key upzoning provisions on the spring Town Meeting warrants in many communities, reducing the stranglehold NIMBY factions have over communities cannot wait. But to get Baker’s bill into law quickly, it needs support from progressives on Beacon Hill who are also fired up about housing affordability.  

The real estate industry and the governor should take a hard look at some of the other provisions in the Elugardo/Connolly bill and decide what a reasonable price to pay for their support might be. 

The Rent Control Debate is a Red Herring

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min