Maura Healey, the state’s attorney general and candidate for governor, supports local-option rent control measures while declaring the need to get Massachusetts to build more housing. Photo by Sam Doran | State House News Service

Can Attorney General Maura Healey have her cake and eat it too when it comes to the hot-button issue of rent control? 

We’ll see. But if her recent speech to Boston’s business elite is any indication, the Democratic front-runner in the race for governor is ready to go to almost absurd lengths to straddle the issue. 

Speaking to a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast last week, Healey sounded very much like a housing production hawk. 

The AG told the assembled life science honchos, tech executives, developers, bankers and sundry businesspeople she’s all about finding ways to build housing, from spurring construction of new apartments near T stations to easing problematic zoning restrictions. 

“We need a lot more housing stock of all kinds across the state,” Healey said according to Banker & Tradesman, which covered the event. “We need to increase state resources for that. We need to relax and address some of the zoning barriers that get in the way.” 

But Healey, in comments later to reporters, also effectively endorsed proposals that would give Boston, Cambridge and Somerville the power to cap rents in their cities. 

 Housing Strategy Has Contradictions 

It’s an obvious contradiction but one the Boston Globe and other local media, for the most part, simply missed or ignored. 

As developers, business people and more than a few economists will tell you, trying to boost the construction of new housing while simultaneously rolling out rent control is a fool’s

Municipal efforts to revive rent control have so far met with opposition from the state legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker.

errand. 

New construction of apartment buildings has surged in the quarter-century since voters put an end to rent control in Boston, Cambridge and Brookline. 

Maybe it was all just one big coincidence, but that seems unlikely.

A good politician, Healey is trying to have it both ways. 

On one hand, she said she opposes a “statewide” rent control mandate, which makes little sense in the current debate since no one is proposing or even suggesting that. 

Instead, Healey has effectively thrown her support behind efforts by Boston, Cambridge and Somerville to roll out their own versions of rent control, something all three cities would need the state legislature, and likely the governor as well, to sign off on. 

Her words to reporters following the Boston Chamber event make for interesting reading. Healey seems to acknowledge concerns that rent control – or what she calls “rent stabilization” – could put a damper on housing construction.  

But here’s where Healey tries to have it both ways. 

“Communities should be left to make their own decisions about that,” she said. “And we have to acknowledge that rents are really high for both people and for businesses, and it’s just another indication of the affordability crunch so many people are facing across the state.” 

 Will She Risk Production? 

The problem is, we are not talking about the locals in Lee deciding whether to build a new library or expand the recycling center’s hours. Rather, state lawmakers will likely be eyeing proposals next year to let three cities where much of Greater Boston’s new housing is currently built adopt regulations that could seriously hinder or even shut down new rental construction.  

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, for one, has pledged to bring a local rent control bill forward next year based on what her appointed panel of advocates and real estate industry players produces later this year.

A good politician, Healey is trying to have it both ways.

If Healey is really serious about tackling our state’s outrageous housing costs, then she has some explaining to do. 

In particular, the public deserves to know how Healey squares her apparent concerns about the impact of rent control proposals with her willingness to let legislation move forward

Scott Van Voorhis

that could potentially shut down the commonwealth’s engines of housing production. 

As governor, will Healey simply play the role of a passive bystander, letting the legislature pass rent control measures that would give a green light to Boston, Cambridge and Somerville? 

Or does she have the moxie to stand up to powerful members of her own party, such as Wu, on an issue whose ramifications extend far beyond the city’s borders? 

After all, that’s what governors are supposed to do. 

 

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

What Does Healey Really Support?

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 3 min
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