Somerville tenants voice support for rent stabilization


Tenant speakers expressed concerns about the ongoing displacement of Somerville residents, at the listening session on rent stabilization held by Somerville’s Anti-Displacement Task Force in mid July. Elementary art teacher Ariel DiOrio was one of the tenants who provided testimony. PHOTO: Maile Blume

By Maile Blume

Tenants who call Somerville home advocated for a rent stabilization plan that would cap rent increases and limit the legal reasons a landlord could evict residents.

Residents voiced their concerns about the displacement of the Somerville community during the second of two listening sessions on rent stabilization held by the Somerville Anti-Displacement Task Force in mid July. The goal of the two listening sessions was to inform a draft of rent stabilization laws for the city. 

The task force said the draft of rent stabilization legislation could be sent to the Somerville mayor’s office as early as September, then will be submitted to the city council for a vote. If passed, the bill would permit the city to implement a rent stabilization local ordinance. Then, the city would reach out for additional feedback from the Somerville community, before the ordinance draft is brought before the city council again. 

During the listening session, tenants expressed concern about the ongoing displacement of the Somerville community due to rent increases.  Ronel Remy, a statewide organizer with City Life/Viva Urbana — a grassroots organization that fights for racial, social and economic justice — said he was forced to move six times in about seven years because of uncontrolled rent increases. 

“Somerville embraced me. I thought I made it. That was my American dream,” he said.”I was very happy here, until we lost rent control.” 

Remy said that his landlord doubled his rent after rent control was ended in Massachusetts in 1994. “I’m thinking, it’s not just rent control — we need a box of tools that could remedy what’s going on,” he said, adding, “It’s just not fair that those who have a lot, you know, can dictate everything that we do.”

Educator Naima Sait said that she has seen many families leave Somerville because of rent increases they could not afford. Sait worked with many Haitian families and families from French-speaking parts of Africa, as a French teacher at Somerville High School. 

“After we went back to in-person, my student body completely changed,” she said. “So many of the families that I worked with over the years had to move out of Somerville,” said Sait, adding that many of her senior students had to commute from other cities to finish up the school year. 

“That’s just unjust. It was devastating, you know, to see that,” she said. 

Somerville teachers advocated for rent stabilization measures to address the ongoing displacement of students, teachers, and families. PHOTO: Maile Blume

Capping annual rent increases                                                                                                                    Almost every speaker at the listening session asked for rent increases to be limited to the rate of inflation, not to exceed 5% per year. 

“The vast majority of the renters I work with can barely afford an annual rent increase of 2%,” said Samatha Wolfe, who works as a community organizer with Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS) — an organization that fights to end poverty in Somerville. 

Wolfe said that in order to stop the displacement of low-income tenants, especially those belonging to communities of color and immigrant communities, the city needs to cap rent increases at 2% per year. Many speakers also voiced support for rent rollbacks for current tenants, to prevent further displacement. 

Rent stabilization should apply to all types of housing, supporters said.

“A third of housing in Somerville is owner-occupied, and we know that most of those homes are not single-family, so exempting all of those multi-family buildings from rent stabilization means that thousands of tenants will remain unprotected and at risk of displacement from their homes,” said Wolfe. 

Speakers also suggested that the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) established by the Social Security Administration could be used instead of the rate of inflation as a measure to determine the cap on yearly rent increases. The COLA is a measure that determines how much Social Security benefits are raised each year, and is based on increases in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). The index takes into account the spending patterns of urban wage earners and clerical workers to determine changes in the cost of living for these populations.

“I don’t think people’s wages necessarily increase at the rate of inflation, and I think 5% is often too high, when the rents are already too high,” said housing attorney Susan Hegel, who was one of the speakers who urged the task force to consider the use of the COLA or another index when drafting the new legislation. 

Somerville’s Anti-Displacement Task Force predicts that the new legislation will reach the Massachusetts State Legislature this fall. If passed, Somerville will draft an ordinance that will be voted on by the Somerville City Council. PHOTO: Maile Blume

Expanding tenant protections                                                                                                                        Many tenants also advocated for “just cause eviction” protections, which would limit the legal circumstances under which a landlord could evict tenants, adding that these types of protections need to be specific. “It needs to have language that is not left up for interpretation,” said former Somerville resident Jurett Mooltrey-Weathers, whose building in Somerville was recently sold, displacing her and other tenants. 

Tenants  also voiced support for vacancy controls, which would prevent landlords from raising the rents of vacant units. Resident Haley Brown said that she moved eight times in 11 years because of rent increases. Vacancy controls are “essential to protect tenants from landlords who will kick them out in order to increase the rent,” she said.

Brown testified that housing is not a commodity. “Artists, community activists, teachers, people with a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and incomes are the lifeblood of this city,” she said, adding, “If they can’t afford to live here, there will be nothing to stay for.” 

Gabrielle René, a community organizer with City Life/Viva Urbana, said she was displaced from Somerville as a high school student because her family had to move out of the city after high rent increases. “ We deserve to have places where we know our neighbors. And we deserve to have a community that we can afford — that is affordable and habitable.” René added, “Yes — they can make it affordable and habitable for everybody.” 

Nicole Eigbrett, the co-chair of Somerville’s Anti-Displacement Task Force Residential Displacement Committee, said that the legislation could reach the Massachusetts State Legislature this fall, after the task force submits its recommendations to the mayor, and the city council votes on the finalized proposal for the new laws. 

It could take months or years for the resulting bill to be approved at the state level, said Eigbrett. 

“These specific listening sessions are only the beginning,” said Eigbrett, “and we very much look forward to staying engaged with our community as this legislative process moves forward.”

About Maile Blume 4 Articles
Maile Blume (they / them) grew up in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. They studied Psychology and Dance before working with non-profit organizations as a case manager and counselor. They then went on to pursue a career in Journalism. They seek to tell stories that are meaningful to community members, and stories that are under-represented in mainstream media. They have also developed a passion for covering local government and civic engagement throughout their time at Emerson College.