Rent control ballot question has many more hurdles ahead

Local News

Despite AG Campbell’s certification, an effort to put a rent control question before voters still faces logistical and legal obstacles.

State Rep. Mike Connolly and supporters gather in front of the State House after Connolly received notice that his petition was certified by Attorney General Andrea Campbell. Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe

In 1994, Massachusetts residents voted to prohibit rent control. Now, with a housing crisis wreaking havoc throughout the state, there is momentum behind a number of measures that could allow communities to reintroduce rent control. One, a push for a ballot question that would allow voters to replace the existing ban with a law that allows communities to make their own rules cleared its first major hurdle Wednesday with a certification from Attorney General Andrea Campbell. 

But a long road lies ahead before the question of repealing the ban makes it to ballots. 

One obstacle relates to logistics and manpower. Proponents of adding the question to ballots must collect just shy of 75,000 signatures by Nov. 22. Typically, The Boston Globe reports, signature-gathering endeavors like this require an ample number of volunteers willing to put in thousands of hours of work or expensive private signature collectors. To be safe, organizers normally shoot for more signatures than is technically needed. In a situation like this, organizers would likely aim for 100,000 signatures.

If that signature threshold is met, the Legislature will get a chance to review the measure beginning in January. Even more signatures would be required after that, before a deadline next summer. 

But getting the ballot question in front of voters next fall would be well worth it, state Rep. Mike Connolly said during an appearance on WBUR’s “Radio Boston” Thursday. Connolly filed the petition last month. 

“There’s been a lot of interest and enthusiasm around this 2024 election, when we know there will be a large turnout in Massachusetts to reelect Joe Biden, there will be a large turnout to reelect our senator, Elizabeth Warren. So we think there’s an incredible opportunity here,” Connolly told host Tiziana Dearing. 

Connolly and his allies also face significant legal challenges. The Fiscal Alliance Foundation submitted comments in opposition to the measure in early August, arguing that the proposed question could not be certified because it violates two constitutional requirements. 

Despite Campbell’s decision, the organization intends to keep fighting the measure. 

“The Attorney General is absolutely wrong on this matter and we fully intend to work with a coalition to take this issue to the State Supreme Judicial Court,” Paul Diego Craney, a spokesman for the foundation, said in a statement.

NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate industry group, also plans to appeal Campbell’s decision to the state’s highest court, the Globe reported. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board could as well. Legal challenges to the measure can only be brought before the Supreme Judicial Court after this first signature-collection process is complete. 

“We are disappointed in the Attorney General’s decision to allow the rent control ballot question to move forward as we believe it clearly violates the state’s constitution. We will review the AG’s decision and give serious consideration to appealing to the Supreme Judicial Court to ensure this confusing, overarching question cannot proceed,” GBREB CEO Greg Vasil said in a statement. 

In a message to members Wednesday, the Small Property Owners Association advocated for increasing housing supply to deal with the issue. This, SPOA said, would lower rents without negatively impacting the maintenance and administration of current properties. The organization called rent control a “political scam designed to scapegoat property owners for a problem that they did not create.”

The measure also faces opposition from supporters of rent control. The housing justice group Homes for All Massachusetts said that it was concerned by Connolly’s “unilateral decision to move forward on a 2024 ballot question against the wishes of movement leaders, and without collaborating with the statewide anti-eviction and anti-foreclosure coalition,” in a statement to the Globe. The ballot question initiative is detracting from legislative efforts to eliminate the ban on rent control, the group said. 

Even if the question does make it to the ballot, major players in the real estate industry appear ready to spend big to convince voters to reject the measure. Vasil estimated that industry groups could spend as much as $30 million in a campaign against it, the Globe reported. 

Earlier this year, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu introduced a home-rule petition that would limit rent increases in the city. It won the approval of City Council, but has since stalled on Beacon Hill. Somerville leaders are also considering a similar proposal. GBREB spent just under $400,000 on a mailing campaign to oppose Boston’s petition, the Globe reported.