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Brookline will ask state legislature for ability to cap annual rent increases

Town Meeting member during this year's special town meeting in November. Photo by Artemisia Luk
November 17, 2023

Brookline will ask the state legislature for permission to cap annual rent increases, adding the town to a growing group of voices in the Boston area pushing for the return of rent control.

A proposal narrowly approved by Town Meeting on Thursday calls for prohibiting landlords, with some exceptions, from raising year-over-year rent by more than 3%, plus the rate of inflation, up to a maximum of 7%.

Because rent control is banned at the state level, Brookline’s request has to go through the state legislature, which has previously been unsupportive of a similar request from Boston.

But part of the rationale of the proposal was to increase pressure on state lawmakers as some push a bill to undo the 1994 statewide ban, according to main sponsor Alec Lebovitz.

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The hotly-debated Brookline measure led to the closest vote of this fall’s Town Meeting session, with 112 votes in favor, 107 against and 13 abstentions.

Read past Brookline.News coverage with more details about the proposal.

It was approved despite opposition from two of the town’s most prominent political bodies, the elected Select Board and the appointed Advisory Committee.

In presenting the proposal, Lebovitz argued that rent stabilization is a way to help prevent people from being forced out of Brookline because of rising housing costs.

“Low and middle income families can no longer afford to live here. Cost-based displacement is the new normal here in Brookline,” said Lebovitz.

“Rent regulation has consistently been found to make covered units more affordable over time.”

Opponents of the measure claimed that it would disincentivize new development in town, contrasting the goals of a major rezoning plan earlier in Town Meeting which is intended to bring new condos and apartments to Harvard Street.

“We just spent a year trying to get new housing production in Brookline, and we succeeded. We succeeded stunningly,” said Carol Gladstone, who spoke in opposition to the rent control proposal. “I am concerned that bringing this forward again will absolutely impede new development.”

Mike Sandman, a Select Board member also opposed to the rent control plan, said he was concerned that “just the prospect of rent control is likely to cause landlords to hike their rent now instead of wait.”

But the plan brought together a wide enough coalition of supporters, including several people who described benefitting from rent control in Brookline before it was banned statewide in 1994.

“Rent control helped change the trajectory of my life,” said Susan Granoff. She says she was ultimately able to buy a house because of her savings from rent control in Brookline. “Let’s return to a tried and tested solution. The last time Brookline had a thriving middle class was when we had rent control. It worked then, and it can work now.”

Lebovitz said in an interview after the vote that he hopes the outcome sends a message to the legislature.

“Communities are hurting, Greater Boston is hurting. There’s hurt throughout the state. And we have policies that used to be in our toolbox, that worked for a long time,” he said. “And we’re simply saying ‘give us this tool back.’”

The proposal also calls for other tenant protections, including limiting the reasons that landlords can evict a tenant.

If the state legislature approves Brookline’s home rule petition, Town Meeting would have to vote again on the specifics of new bylaws.

Created committee to study form of town government

Town Meeting also approved a proposal to create a committee to study forms of government in Massachusetts and compare them to Brookline’s. The committee will be “empowered to recommend among various proposals or alternative forms for Brookline government” and report back by August 31, 2024.

The new committee will move forward at the same time as a city charter campaign which is trying to gather signatures to put the question of forming a charter commission on the town ballot in May.

Town Meeting voted 155 to 58, with 10 abstentions, to create the committee.

Water and sewer discount plan tabled

Town Meeting voted to spend more time working on a proposal that was put forward by Select Board member Paul Warren to ask the state legislature to let the town expand its water and sewer discounts for seniors. (Currently, only 6 people in town take advantage of the discounts).

After a discussion of mostly procedural questions, Town Meeting voted 135 to 87, with 11 abstentions, to refer the proposal so that town staff could continue crafting the details of the expansion before asking the state legislature to take it up.

Heath School renamed

Town Meeting also voted to rename the Heath School after musician Roland Hayes, affirming a process which was previously voted on by students, teachers and parents. The school will be formally renamed by the new year, according to sponsor Dave Gacioch.

The warrant article passed 208 to 4 with 23 abstentions.

Resolution to ban PFAS

Finally, Town Meeting easily passed a resolution asking the town to avoid the use or purchase of products containing “forever chemicals,” including those known as PFAS.

It passed 219 to 2, with 4 abstentions.