Landlords v. Tenants
Tenant Rights Group Propose Just-Cause Eviction Law
Opponents Call Ordinance Thinly-Disguised Rent Control
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By Jim Morrison | Dec 6, 2015
A home rule petition calling for “just cause” evictions in the city of Boston is gaining support from tenants’ rights groups, other civic groups and city councilors, and is drawing criticism from landlords who say it’s just another end-run toward rent control.
Lisa Owens Pinto, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, said she wants to make one thing clear: “This ordinance is not about rent control. It in no way controls rents.”
“This ordinance is first and foremost an anti-displacement measure,” Pinto said. “It’s about stabilizing communities and everyone benefits from that. It addresses the owners of buildings with five units or more. It does not target an owner-occupant who owns a duplex or a triple-decker.”
Currently, Massachusetts allows “no fault” evictions, where a landlord can evict a tenant who doesn’t agree to a rent increase, even if the tenant didn’t violate the terms of the lease. Tenant advocates say developers use this law to clear out buildings once they’ve bought them in order to jack up rents.
Pinto said she started noticing this toward the end of the foreclosure crisis, as it morphed into a tenant crisis. She said more and more people started showing up at City Life/Vida Urbana tenant meetings.
“We found multifamily homes were being purchased by investors,” Pinto said. “The trend was investors would buy a building and do a clear-out using no-fault eviction. This has a destabilizing effect on the tenants and the neighborhood and it puts upward pressure on rents.”
The proposed ordinance, if approved by the Boston City Council and the state legislature, would allow tenants to request mediation with the landlord and a third party in cases where rent would be increased by more than 5 percent. Buildings with fewer than five units would be exempt.
The non-binding mediation would explore alternatives agreeable to both parties and make it possible for the tenant to stay in the apartment.
“A stable community with long-term owners and renters is good for everybody,” Pinto said.
Framingham attorney Richard D. Vetstein, founding partner of Vetstein Law Group, said he has worked on approximately 5,000 eviction cases. He said he sympathizes with both tenants and landlords, but said the proposed ordinance would place unfair burdens on landlords in Boston, where the laws already strongly favor tenants.
“What’s to work out? If the landlord can find a tenant, that’s what fair market rent is,” Vetstein said. “This provision would manipulate the rental market. If a tenant can’t afford a rent increase, they’ll just have to find someplace more affordable to live. That’s what happens in a lot of neighborhoods over the years. People who used to live in the North End have moved to the North Shore. People who lived in South Boston had to move to the South Shore.”
Vetstein said he recognizes market forces are making it harder and harder for working-class people to afford rents in Boston. He fears that if this ordinance passes, it will drive rents up, soften demand for rental properties and will create a disincentive for landlords to improve and maintain properties.
“There’s no easy answer, but I can tell you that the system is already completely in favor of the tenant. The disincentive is already built into the system,” Vetstein said. “Soon no one will want to be a landlord in the city of Boston, and that’s not good for anybody.”
Boston Needs Diversity
Boston city councilor Tito Jackson, who represents District 7, stopped short of endorsing the ordinance, which has not yet been filed, but said he supports its goals.
“The proposal is one of several that we’ve see in cities around the United States that tries to blunt displacement in cities,” Jackson said. “There are many aspects of it that have to be talked about, but the overall objective is to lower displacement in cities.”
Jackson said the city has to be forward-thinking, innovative and creative in coming up with ways to retain residents and preserve the city’s diversity.
“I think the strength of the city is its diversity across all categories, including economic strata,” he said. “It is critical that the city have a healthy mix of ethnic, as well as socio-economic, diversity.”
Rent Control In Disguise
Ralph “Skip” Schloming, executive director of the Small Property Owners Association in Cambridge, says he and the roughly 900 members of his organization oppose the ordinance as a thinly-disguised attempt at reviving rent control, which was banned in Boston, Cambridge and Brookline in a 1994 statewide ballot.
“It’s a dilemma,” Schloming said. “Activists want rent control back. They’ve tried to resurrect it by calling it things like ‘community stabilization.’ Now it’s disguised as just-cause eviction.”
Schloming said he objects to the mediation option when rents are raised more than 5 percent, saying that it would include advocacy groups who would influence tenants who might normally be cooperative and instead increase hostility. He said that hostility could spread throughout a building, or even a neighborhood.
“They’ll use intimidation or bureaucratic strangulation to attack landlords,” Schloming said. “They also want to create a tenant movement. This will give the advocacy groups considerable power if it’s approved.”
Schloming said tenant advocacy groups are unfairly attacking the people who provide the most affordable housing in the private market: small-scale landlords.
“I do have sympathy for families where rents are $800 to $900 for a flat in a triple decker and maybe they need guidance about where to relocate,” he said. “They may have to move to move away a little further away from Boston.”
Schloming said restrictions on what landlords can charge for rent will restrict how much they can afford to spend on maintenance and upgrades to the rental units, and that’s bad for everyone. He said if tenant advocacy groups want address the lack of affordable housing in Boston, there are other, better ways to do it.
“They’re ignoring other ways to reduce housing costs, like creating in-law apartments in attics and basements and taking the large apartments and dividing them into smaller units which would be much more affordable,” Schloming said. “These tenant advocates should be lobbying zoning boards and neighborhoods to consider this form of making housing more affordable for tenants.”
Kathy Brown, coordinator of the Boston Tenant’s Association, calls the proposal “modest” and said she is encouraged by the support it has received so far. She said seven councilors and more than 30 civic groups have already voiced their support for the ordinance.
If the ordinance is passed by the city council and signed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, it would still have to be approved by the state legislature before it would become law in the city of Boston.
“Other municipalities have already passed or are considering similar measures,” Brown said.