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Amid rent control debate, regular reminders of how expensive Boston-area leasing is

The region for years has been among the most expensive in the U.S. for renters—would caps on rent increases change that?

A row of three-story residential buildings along a city street, with cars parked along the street. Shutterstock

The debate over returning rent control power to individual Massachusetts municipalities rumbles on. A January 14 hearing on pending legislation that would do just that drew hundreds of supporters and a few opponents from the real estate industry to the State House.

Underlying the debate, of course, are the rents themselves. Reports from the start of 2020 show just how high leasing costs are—and have remained pretty much since the years just after the 2008 financial crisis, despite a historic pace of housing development.

Such statistics amid that development—which just can’t seem to ever overtake demand—explain why the rent control debate is happening now.

A report from Apartment List, for instance, concluded that one- and two-bedroom median rents region-wide as of 2020 have barely budged from where they were in early 2019. A report from Zumper showed steep annual increases in several municipalities, including double-digit percentage rises in Cambridge, Everett, and Malden. See the chart below.

Another Zumper report placed the Boston metro in general among the five most expensive major U.S. markets for leasing a one- or a two-bedroom apartment, territory it’s inhabited for years.

None of the reports are comprehensive. They miss listings and sometimes rely on estimates. But together they present a snapshot of a region where leasing costs are a perennial boon for landlords and a ceaseless bear for tenants.

Would rent control—the kind that allows governments to cap and/or freeze rents—change that? Probably not, though it might temper the increases.

Look what happened in the years immediately after rent control disappeared from Massachusetts in 1996, following a voter referendum. Rents spiked by double-digit percentages, for both formerly controlled apartments and those long unregulated. Evictions soared—5,000 of the approximately 60,000 rent-controlled households in Boston proper were evicted.

“Suffolk County Housing Court was seeing 400 cases a day, an increase of 29 percent over three years earlier and an all-time record,” Matthew Schuerman writes in Newcomers, his history of gentrification.

The pending legislation that would restore municipalities’ ability to adopt rent control (among other tenant protections the legislation also includes) is precarious. It’s unclear if it enjoys anywhere near majority support among Beacon Hill lawmakers, and Gov. Charlie Baker is opposed. And, even if rent control were enacted statewide, it would be a town-by-town, city-by-city fight to implement it.

Meanwhile, rents keep going up.