A religious wrinkle in the rent control debate
Opponents argue including convents and monasteries should bar question from the ballot
OPPONENTS OF a potential ballot initiative allowing for a local rent control option are covering all their bases in urging Attorney General Andrea Campbell not to certify it. In between claims that the ballot measure improperly includes unrelated items in the same proposal and that it would allow taking property without just compensation, coalitions of real estate and property interests include an unusual claim – that the rent control measure tries to put religion on the ballot.
A ballot measure, filed by state Rep. Mike Connolly, that would allow communities to enact policies regulating rents, lists units that would be exempt from such controls, including units in two- or three-family owner-occupied buildings, cooperatives, or hotels and boarding houses where people stay for less than two weeks. But it also includes a carve-out exempting units “in a hospital, convent, monastery, public institution or college or school dormitory operated exclusively for charitable or educational purposes.”
Opponents have jumped on that provision, arguing that it constitutes another rationale for tossing the question from the 2024 ballot.
The Massachusetts Constitution lays out rules for what kind of subjects are appropriate for a ballot initiative. Generally speaking, the Supreme Judicial Court has concluded that religious matters cannot be put to a public vote by referendum in order to avoid using the ballot as a launch point for “public political discussion of matters relating to religion.”
The ballot measure “invites controversial conversation with its preferential language and exemptions pertaining only to certain religions, religious practices and religious institutions – namely monasteries and convents which are traditionally associated with Christianity – while containing no express inclusions or exemptions for other religions or faiths, such as Islam or Judaism,” attorneys for the the Small Property Owners Association and Boston Asian Landlord Association wrote.
Legislation that has been filed to allow local rent control options frequently includes a number of exemptions. Along with sponsoring the ballot measure, Connolly has filed a bill to allow rent control that would not apply to renters in owner-occupied buildings with less than three units. A bill put forward by Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville exempts dorms, elder care units, owner-occupied buildings with less than four units, and public authority-regulated units.
The bills don’t include mention of convents and monasteries, but those types of housing units are listed in several existing statutes and ordinances, including anti-discrimination law and the City of Boston’s rental housing equity ordinance.
Gerry McDonough, an attorney for the rent control ballot measure proponents, says the phrase should be read in its broader context, not as singling out monasteries and convents but rather including them among similar types of exempted units.
“The clear purpose of this language in the Tenant Protection Act is to exempt property owners who do not have a profit-maximizing motive and therefore are unlikely to require regulation to protect tenants,” McDonough wrote in a letter to the attorney general responding to the argument raised by the opponents.Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, filed his ballot proposal as another potential path to securing tenant protections, with efforts to allow rent control through legislation moving languidly, to say the least, through the Legislature.
Circumventing the legislative process by ballot measure is dividing progressives, some of whom worry a pricey defeat at the voting booth might doom later chances on Beacon Hill, where legislators historically have shown little interest in revisiting the issue since rent control was banned statewide by a 1994 ballot question.