An apartment building on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The city was a hotbed of first tenant organizing in the 1960s and 1970s for rent control, then landlord organizing in the 1980s and 1990s against it.

What: Ballot Initiative Repeals Rent Control
When: Nov. 8, 1994
Where: Statewide 

  • A statewide ballot initiative spearheaded by Cambridge landlords did what years of local efforts couldn’t on Election Day in 1994: End decades of rent control in Boston, Cambridge and Brookline.
  • Years of concerted tenant organizing and a backlash to the “urban renewal” era had pushed a law through Beacon Hill in 1970 legalizing local-option rent control in cities over 50,000. The law expired in 1975, but tenants’ groups managed to turn the issue into a popular topic in Cambridge, Brookline and Boston, and secured home-rule petitions to keep the structure in place there. 
  • By the 1990s, however, fractures in by-then faded tenant groups coupled with a multi-year media and organizing campaign by the Small Property Owners Association and stories of high-profile figures – like a Supreme Judicial Court judge who heard a SPOA suit against Cambridge’s rent control law – living in rent-controlled units helped landlords eek out a narrow 51 percent-to-49 percent win with the backing of suburban voters. 

“We document that, consistent with expectations, rent-controlled properties were valued at a substantial discount relative to never-controlled properties. Rent decontrol largely eliminated this differential, increasing the assessed values of these properties by approximately 18 to 25 percent.”
— David H. Autor, Christopher J. Palmer and Parag A. Pathak in “Housing Market Spillovers: Evidence from the End of Rent Control in Cambridge Massachusetts,” NBER Working Paper 18125 

To celebrate its 150th anniversary, Banker & Tradesman is highlighting significant moments in the history of Massachusetts’ real estate and banking industries. To suggest a topic, email

This Month in History: Rent Control Abolished

by James Sanna time to read: 1 min