It’s a tough time to be a renter in Massachusetts. Between a two-year slump in new construction and the median rent’s sudden bounce-back from a year of COVID-induced stagnation, many are facing big price increases. 

It’s no surprise that politicians everywhere are feeling the pinch, too. In a sign of intense backroom debate, the Joint Committee on Housing couldn’t come to an agreement on rent control, real estate transfer tax and tenant’s right of first refusal bills by its Feb. 2 deadline. Committee members instead sought extension for several bills until later this month and others into the spring. 

There’s no question something needs to be done, and soon. Not simply to help Bay Staters buffer double-digit rent hikes and generate more money to simplify affordable housing finance, but to use the current moment to push needed changes through a state legislature that often seems reluctant to act on housing issues.  

In one hopeful sign, the Housing Committee endorsed bill package (H.1448 / S.871) to strengthen last year’s groundbreaking “MBTA communities” zoning reform legislation after much lobbying by groups like Abundant Housing MA. The bill would make multifamily provisions a statewide mandate instead of a suggestion, and sets a formal housing production target similar to the state’s climate goals.  

With officials in suburbs like Newton indicating they’ll happily forgo MassWorks infrastructure grants in order to avoid zoning for more multifamily homes, these bills must become law this session. As Steve Adams reports in this week’s issue, such an approach can quickly stabilize rents: The 2017-2018 multifamily building boom forced landlords afraid of competition to refrain from big rent increases. 

On other measures, however, it appears that some progressives hope to split the real estate lobby with their proposals in the hopes of finding a “compromise” solution. Small landlords and transfers between families are exempted from the renters’ right of first refusal bill being debated on Beacon Hill, for example, and sales below $2 million aren’t covered by Boston’s proposed transfer tax to fund affordable housing. 

But it’s not clear that’s possible. The stereotypical “mom-and-pop” landlord, content to stay small – the widow renting out the unit above hers in a duplex, the neighbor who bought a three-decker one street over – is a lot rarer than you might think. Many small landlords are full-time operators and investors; many aspire to grow their businesses into larger operations. It’s why bills that pile on another tax or, like tenants’ right of first refusal, create serious impediments to their businesses have generated such vehement responses from landlord groups. 

Instead, these fights over housing policy may come down to the raw power of different factions on Beacon Hill. And that’s an uncertain contest that, in a building that has historically prized backroom consensus on major bills, may well mean we have to wait another year for action on Massachusetts’ housing affordability problems. 

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Tough Time for Renters, Dilemma for Legislators

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min