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Rent control gets a second look in Cambridge

4.30.19

A growing debate over rent control in Massachusetts has people in Cambridge harkening back to an era when apartment-living in this city was quite different: the 1990s.

Specifically, they’re revisiting 1994, the year Massachusetts voters narrowly outlawed restrictions on what landlords could charge tenants. Today, amid a housing crunch that grips much of Greater Boston, some lawmakers are saying it may be time to reconsider that decision.

While Boston and Brookline also had rent control programs in 1994, Cambridge’s was by far the most stringent. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s housing stock was under a rental cap, and a powerful board held sway over what landlords could demand for an apartment. In the quarter-century since the law was abolished, the Cambridge housing market has soared, powered in part by the emergence of Kendall Square as one of the world’s top biotechnology hubs.

There are at least two bills on Beacon Hill — one filed, the other expected to be filed soon — that would effectively undo that 1994 initiative and allow cities and towns to again impose rent control.

The prognosis for the legislation is unclear. Governor Charlie Baker has signaled his opposition to rent control, but supporters say it and other tenant protections should be part of the conversation in any broader housing legislation, including measures Baker wants that would ease zoning changes.

Should they succeed, the debate would be thrown back to cities and towns, many of which — like Cambridge — have changed dramatically since rent control ended.

Tim Toomey, the only current Cambridge City Council member who was on the board in 1994, lives just north of Kendall Square, in what was once a working-class neighborhood that has increasingly become home to biotech and tech workers who earn enough to pay $2,500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

Read more about the rent control debate in the Boston Globe.

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