By Maile Blume
Somerville has joined Cambridge and Boston in considering rent stabilization to prevent rapidly increasing rents and displacement of the city’s residents.
Annual rent increases have been an ongoing challenge for many Somerville residents since Massachusetts abolished rent control in 1994. The economic strain that the COVID-19 pandemic placed on many residents also exacerbated the issue.
Since taking office in 2022, Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne has allocated $8.3 million to the Somerville Affordable Housing Trust Fund to build more affordable housing units and providing local rent subsidies for low-income families, to help them stay in the city. In 2020, only 33.5% of homes in Somerville were owner-occupied, making the population of the city primarily renters, according to the US Census Bureau.
In July 2021, the city created the Somerville Anti-Displacement Task Force to look into policies that could prevent residential displacement. Some of the other cities with sustainable housing models that the task force is analyzing are California and Minnesota. This April, the task force expanded to include a committee for small businesses and a committee for those belonging to Somerville’s arts community.
The purpose of this task force is to “develop programming and policy recommendations that aim to reduce the rate of displacement of people who live in, have businesses in, or make up the cultural fabric of the city”, according to a statement by the task force. The task force is made up of City of Somerville staff, as well as community members, and is considering how rent stabilization policies in other cities might be applied to Somerville.
In mid July, the task force held a listening session for property owners to hear their concerns and gather input for an upcoming draft of rent stabilization laws for the city. Around 50 people were in attendance, many of whom supported rent stabilization measures for the city. Another listening session for tenants was also held to inform the upcoming legislation.
Rent stabilization legislation could include protections against excessive rent increases and wrongful evictions, according to the city. The new laws will consider which types of buildings will qualify for rent stabilization, as well as the circumstances under which a unit that once qualified for rent stabilization could be exempted from those restrictions.
Several property owners at the listening session voiced support for rent stabilization. Others expressed concerns about how to keep up with the rising costs of utilities and the maintenance of their properties, as well as how rent stabilization could curb development.
Property owner Derrick Rice said he supported stabilization because he has seen many friends leave Somerville after not being able to find rental units or houses they could afford. “I benefited from a system that lets people with wealth accumulate more wealth,” Rice said. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay — not because my house will become too expensive, but because there will be nothing and no one to stay for,” he added.
“The instability that comes with the type of rent increases that we’re seeing over the last 20 years is just a generational catastrophe,” said property owner Malcolm Cummings, adding that he wants his young son to grow up to be able to “build deep roots and connections with people” in Somerville. Cummings was among several property owners who asked for the strongest possible version of rent stabilization for the city.
Other property owners raised questions about how rent stabilization could affect properties that are already offered to tenants at below market rates. “My apartments are at least $500 a month under market, and the two stores are $1,000 at least below market so that I could have artists in those stores,” said property owner Ellen Tan. She asked about how the new legislation will determine base rents. “If those base rents start where my rents are now, I’ll be in serious, serious financial trouble if we go through another period of economic inflation periods as we have,” Tan added.
Another question raised at the listening session is what role the city could play in supporting landlords. “My tenants are living in my apartment over five or six years because my rental is very reasonable,” said property owner Sonia Song, adding that in recent years, labor costs, property tax and the water bill for the property have all increased. “If city government can control this so that we don’t have inflation, we don’t have labor and the construction increase, and we don’t pay increased property tax, I think this problem would be solved” said Song.
Several property owners also shared concerns that rent stabilization could reduce construction and development in the city, while others mentioned their dependence on their incomes from their properties to keep themselves afloat financially.
“The regulations are not for you — the regulations are to stop predatory practices,” said property owner Wheeler DeAngelis, addressing other landlords’ concerns about their apartments already having low rents. “Rent stabilization will allow you to raise your rents according to inflation and tax raises,” he added.