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Town Meeting proposal would throw Brookline into statewide debate over rent control

Condos on Beacon Street in Brookline. Photo by Sam Mintz
November 6, 2023

Brookline Town Meeting members are set to debate a measure this month asking state legislators to let the town impose a cap on yearly rent increases, potentially throwing Brookline into a roiling statewide debate over rent control.

Warrant Article 16, proposed by Town Meeting members Alec Lebovitz (Precinct 8) and Kimberley Richardson (Precinct 2) and resident Johnathon Card, aims to “create more equity between homeowners and renters” by prohibiting landlords from raising year-over-year rent by more than 3%, plus the rate of inflation, up to a maximum of 7%.

It would have some exemptions, including for newly-constructed units, smaller landlords, dormitories and nonprofit housing, but its sponsors say it would apply to as many as 11,000 rental units in Brookline, 85% of the current rental stock.

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

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“We need to take action to try to make sure that folks who have lived in Brookline for years or have families here have stability in their housing situation and can comfortably know they can stay in Brookline,” said Lebovitz.

Bonnie Bastien, a Town Meeting member and supporter of the measure, said that her rent went up $800 last summer.

“I hope that as you’re assessing this you can consider how exorbitant rents are in Brookline, truly.” she told members of the Advisory Committee, an appointed panel which makes recommendations to Town Meeting. “And consider that when you look at the triple deckers which exist here, the people in those are no longer firefighters or teachers, middle class people. They’re lawyers, and architects, and doctors living in those triple deckers. That’s a humongous shift.”

Even if the Town Meeting measure is approved this month, the proposal would face another hurdle: because rent control is currently banned by state law, the Massachusetts legislature would have to allow the town to bypass that restriction.

State lawmakers (who are four times more likely to be landlords than renters) have given a chilly reception to a similar effort by Boston to enact rent stabilization.

But backers of the proposal in Brookline say if passed, it could help build momentum alongside a signature-gathering campaign underway to put the issue on the ballot next year, which would ask statewide voters if they want to reverse the 1994 ban.

“My sense is this is a movement and it’s growing,” said Lebovitz. “It’s easier for legislators on Beacon Hill to ignore a single community making a request like this. It becomes harder when more and more join the chorus, and when more organizing is going on outside of Beacon Hill in support of this.”

An uphill climb at Town Meeting

Lebovitz pointed to the town’s results from the 1994 referendum as evidence that the policy is right for Brookline: voters here opposed the ban on rent control by a 12% margin.

But rent control has been the subject of bitter political debates in Brookline’s past, which is one reason the current proposal faces a steep uphill battle at Town Meeting (which, like most political bodies in the country, is dominated by homeowners).

The current proposal is opposed by both the town’s Select Board and the Advisory Committee.

Select Board members said they were worried the ban would disincentivize development, and that it might push landlords into raising rents now.

“As soon as the threat of rent control or rent stabilization is raised, developers aren’t stupid, landlords aren’t stupid,” said board member John VanScoyoc. “If they’re going to be capped a couple years from now, that’s an incentive to increase the rent as much as they can now. This could end up causing exorbitant rent increases.”

The board voted 4-1 on Oct. 24 to recommend that Town Meeting reject the measure.

Board member Miriam Aschkenasy was the lone vote in support. “I think this is a conversation worth having. This is a way for us to signal our support, even though I think it’s many steps away from actually happening,” she said.

Advisory Committee members raised worries about the cost to the town of reinstating a rent control board, and the impact on landlords.

“This falls solely on the landlords. It’s a societal problem … but rather than solving it with money that comes from everyone, this just solves it with money coming from the landlords,” said AC member Harry Friedman.

Town Meeting begins on Nov. 14.