Throwback screenshot via WBZ from the '90s. When TV reporters like Liz Walker still covered housing justice.
Throwback screenshot via WBZ from the ’90s. When TV reporters like Liz Walker still covered housing justice.


Mass State House, Oct 29, noon-1:30 pm


Twenty-five years after the real estate industry destroyed rent control in Massachusetts, marching season is upon us. A call to arms has been raised by tenant organizations across the land and real estate interests are being pushed back for the first time in decades. So, it’s past time that renters around the Bay State join the fight for housing justice in great numbers.


As we do, we will be in good company. In New York, according to the New York Times, a new Democratic majority in the state legislature recently expanded existing rent control protections that “would allow cities and towns statewide to fashion their own regulations, which are meant to keep apartments affordable by limiting rent increases.” And would also “make the changes permanent—a major victory for tenant activists who have had to lobby Albany every few years when the old laws expired.”


In California, the Times reports that its lawmakers approved a bill in September that “limits annual rent increases to 5 percent after inflation and offers new barriers to eviction.” Following Oregon, which “became the first [state] to pass statewide rent control, limiting increases to 7 percent annually plus inflation.”


And on the presidential campaign trail, Bernie Sanders is calling for a national rent control standard.


Now political support is growing for a bill (H.3924, the Tenant Protection Act) introduced by State Reps. Mike Connolly and Nika Elugardo and aimed at effectively reversing the real estate industry-funded referendum of 1994—Question 9—that banned rent control statewide. Providing “municipalities with the authority to implement rent-stabilizing regulations, just cause eviction protections, stronger condominium conversion and foreclosure protections, anti-displacement zones, and options to help tenants manage the upfront costs of leasing an apartment,” according to a post on Connolly’s blog


This in a period when Democrats are starting to see renters as an important voting bloc in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, and real estate industry propaganda about the virtues of ever-skyrocketing rents are sounding increasingly hollow to tens of millions of beleaguered renters nationwide. Many of whom are hemmed in economically—stuck in unstable, low-paying contingent jobs without benefits, slammed by credit card debt accrued in a desperate attempt to make ends meet, and terribly burdened with student loan debt. Seemingly as punishment for attempting to better themselves with the advanced education society has traditionally said is the path to a better life. While being only one significant accident or illness away from crushing debt for health care—including debt for dental care that is rarely properly covered by public or private health plans.


So, many candidates for local office in Bay State cities that had rent control between 1970 and 1994 are going on record in support of its reinstitution this year. Including a majority of at-large city council candidates in Boston—in a hotly contested race. A majority of city council candidates in Cambridge… notably democratic socialist Ben Simon, whose family lost rent control and got evicted when he was a child, according to the Cambridge Day. Both mayoral candidates and a majority of sitting city councilors in Somerville (which had rent control until 1979, when it was eliminated by fiat of the old Board of Aldermen).


But, in a sign of the times, they are being joined by politicians in municipalities that never had rent control… most recently Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera—who is talking publicly about the need to stabilize rents and has just appointed a rent control task force in his city. Even as legislators from across the Commonwealth have signed onto Connolly’s and Elugardo’s bill.


None of this groundswell is powerful enough to push such a bill—and several other renter-friendly housing bills Connolly, Elugardo, and their allies have filed—to passage while real estate industry friendly pols like House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Charlie Baker run state government. But the mere fact of the suite of pro-tenant housing bills reaching their first committees as the zeitgeist waxes populist marks the start of what looks to be one of the toughest political battles in recent memory hereabouts.


The perspicacious pair of legislators clearly know this and have worked with tenant-friendly organizations and select local politicians to call a Rally for Rent Control and Tenant Protections, next Tuesday, Oct 29, noon-1:30 pm at the Massachusetts State House. As of this writing, the action is co-sponsored by City Life/Vida Urbana, Chinese Progressive Association, Lynn United for Change, Mass Coalition for the Homeless, Boston Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, Cambridge Residents Alliance, A Better Cambridge, Our Revolution Cambridge, Right to the City—Boston, Our Revolution Somerville, and Progressive Massachusetts. Elected officials confirmed to attend include Brookline Select Board Member Raul Fernandez (representing a town that also had rent control until 1994); Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan; Chelsea City Council President Damali Vidot; Somerville City Councilors Matt McLaughlin, JT Scott, and Ben Ewen-Campen; and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.


Yes, it’s just one rally. The first of many, to be sure. And naturally, any bill calling for rent control faces a steep uphill slog through a still-hostile legislature. But every tenant who knows that the rent is “too damn high”—to quote a famously zany New York political candidate who won eternal fame thanks to a Saturday Night Live sketch based on his timely slogan—needs to go to this rally. And bring all your friends. If you do, this can be the start of the [M]ass movement that will change everything.


I will be there. Earlier this year, I wrote about how I lost my rent-controlled apartment after Question 9 passed by a thin margin in 1994—and how that loss made my life, and the lives of thousands of fellow working people who also got screwed by the real estate industry across in Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge, much more difficult economically and politically over the years that followed than they would have otherwise been. 


A quarter century later, I am still struggling with stratospherically high rent that burns through about 50% of my income monthly. 


Even though I get a better deal as an older long-term tenant than younger people in my building get. In the same Cambridge neighborhood where I once paid under 20% of my income for rent. And even though I co-own a metro newspaper. 


I’m supposed to have finally made it to the middle class—my six-figure higher education debt and other very standard debt taken as given in this era of runaway capitalism. But I haven’t. I have no savings. My marriage to a person with a somewhat better job doesn’t save me and doesn’t make it any more possible for the two of us to buy even a small condo anywhere near where either of us work. Nor can we afford extra rent for a less miniature apartment.


So I’m going to the Rally for Rent Control and Tenant Protections. And I’m telling all my friends—including all of you, my reading audience—to join me there.


It won’t be an easy fight. But it’s marching season. And as I fought against the destruction of rent control a quarter century back, I’m damned well going to join with renters all over the state to force its reinstatement—together with a host of new housing reforms—this time. And we’re going to win. Because we have to win. More homelessness, economic insecurity, and deepening human misery is simply not an option. Not if this nation is going to remain a democracy.


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.