BOSTON – May 16, 2018
On May 2nd, Beacon Hill legislators made a drastic and shamelessly irresponsible decision that invites us to think evil thoughts about them because it shows us through the crystal ball of justice and logic a turbid labyrinth of interests in favor of the real estate industry. Despite the evidence of extreme gentrification indicating that Boston is suffering from bloated and unhealthy development, legislators are not interested in doing anything to solve the problem.
These politicians, without a bit of compassion and humanity for the most vulnerable, sent bill H.4142 back for “study.” Which is one of those quaint terms that Beacon Hill uses as a convenient way to eliminate those political proposals that lack proper structure, but also those that go against their interests.
Bill H. 4142 is known as the “Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act.” It is a “very modest” act, according to Sheila Dillon, Boston’s Chief of Housing, who explained that this bill was designed to do two simple things: provide the city a way of tracking down evictions in real time and permit the city to notify tenants of their rights when they have been given an eviction notice. The bill would only apply to Boston, but as it was a petition involving home rule, would have required the approval of the State Legislature.
“Home rule petitions are not easy to approve. But this came with a special history. The Jim Brooks Act was the last and meager breath of a three-year effort to enact changes in Boston’s rental laws in order to confront what parties are calling an ‘eviction crisis’ in the city,” Dillon explained.
The work of the legislators is not simple, but given an issue as urgent and important as the violation of the universal human rights to decent housing of a vulnerable population, they should have acted with much more respect for the voters who elected them. The decision of these legislators leaves much to be desired, because supposedly as part of the government they should strive to maintain a balance between the interests of tenants and property owners.
Over the years, proposals to respond to the needs of a population that is affected by these abuses of the real estate industry have been created, and they have all ended up in the cemetery for uncomfortable proposals, those that are considered taboo, those that can’t even be spoken of, and for which one must frown and change the conversation because they cause hives!
Is it really true that Boston is for everyone, or is that just an illusion, that they are making us believe, with so many initiatives of progress and abundance? Maybe we will become deluded characters on the shelves of the rich history of Boston because the real estate industry will make us walk in 2030 as ghosts through the streets of the city that we helped to build, and that now has Latin American aromas wafting through them?
The average price of houses in the city has risen more than 50% since 2005. Rental prices have also taken off, almost 55% since 2009. The average market rent is currently $2,800. The rent increases have been particularly serious about their impact on middle and lower-income families.
Is the only way to satisfy this demand to build more houses? Is that the reason that the mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, has promised to create 53,000 additional housing units in the city by the year 2030? “We established, and are surpassing, our historic housing objectives for all income levels,” Walsh said in his 2017 State of the City speech in 2017. “We are going to use all the tools at our disposal to maintain Boston as a city of neighborhoods, and as a city for all.”
In some strategic neighborhoods such as East Boston, which was forgotten by the city for many years, developers buy extremely old units, make a few renovations and repairs, and then can ask for rents many times higher, thus recovering their investment in very little time. A very profitable business!
For 2015, a coalition of supporters of tenants’ rights and some legislators felt that the problem of eviction had risen to a critically extreme level, so they asked for a combination of reforms to Boston’s eviction laws that included restrictive situations in which they could use the State’s Evictions for Motive, or Just Cause Eviction statute, requiring mediation for sudden increases to very high rental rates, offering legal representation to evicted tenants, and collecting municipal data on evictions. Together, these proposals represented the most radical changes to the city’s housing laws since 1994.
Supporters of tenants’ rights called it “just cause” eviction reform. But the owners, such as Skip Schloming, former president of the Small Property Owners Association (SPOA), called it something else: “Rent Control.” SPOA is the largest organization of its kind in Massachusetts and the only one that represents exclusively “small owners of rental properties,” although, in reality, they are large lobbyists that defend their own economic interests to the detriment of tenants.
SPOA says that it is a group of “small owners of rental properties” such as families that live in two or three-family homes, or of families that manage rental businesses part time or full time without management contracts. They can contract with carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, but they themselves do everything and suffer when things go badly. However, they own 75% of all the rental housing in Massachusetts, and they still call them “Small Owners”!
In September 2015, the first draft of a very important rental reform proposal began to circulate quietly throughout the City of Boston.
The “Rental Rework 1.0” ordinance contained all that the tenants’ supporters wished for, including tracking evictions and a “Just Cause” clause that indicated that tenants could only be evicted for a handful of specific reasons.
But the largest part of its ideas had to do with rental prices. Supporters wanted Boston to require non-binding mediation between the owners and the tenants for any rent increase that was more than 5%.
The idea ran into immediate problems. Greg Vasil, the CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, made reference to the “dark era of rent control,” and said that the ordinance was an ”absolute nightmare” and would cool the Boston market to the point that the city would not be able to produce the number of new units that the Walsh Administration is proposing. The specter of rent control was too much politically. Not a single city councilor formally sponsored the ordinance. By mid-December, the idea had been shelved.
In March 2016, the City of Boston gathered hundreds of residents and owners in a one-hour meeting. For the first time, the City Council accepted testimony on a new rent proposal that was called “Rental Rework 2.0.”
Three months had passed since the failed “Rental Rework 1.0” when 2.0 eliminated the politically toxic mediation clause, and in its place, opted to redouble its efforts to solve an even more basic problem.
Sheila Dillon testified at the hearing. “Walsh is a champion of data,” she said. After all, this is the administration that launched a series of data visualization panels, mounted on a wall facing the mayor’s desk, which permitted tracking how the city was doing in meeting its key objectives.
“Among the universe of tenants who are evicted, the vast majority never get to housing court,” Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life told the City Council. “Tenants receive an eviction notice and they don’t know that they have the right to go to court. They simply abandon the apartment. That is why we need more data.”
The new ordinance would fix that, requiring owners to notify the city each time they give a 30-day notice to vacate an apartment. At least one group defending owners, MassLandlords, signaled that the data would also be available to tenants’ rights groups. That type of tracking alarmed developers and property owners.
“These notifications are not good at all because they will tell defenders exactly which owners to target with their tactics,” said Schloming, the former president of SPOA. They will use tricks to stay in the apartment, the free rent trick, and rental strikes by all a landlord’s tenants.
Greg Winn, the CEO of Winn Companies at the time, issued a more dire announcement. He told the City Council that even his large enterprise based in Boston, with approximately $5 billion dollars in real estate holdings throughout 11 states, would be harmed by the requirement to inform the city of evictions.
“If the main objective of this ordinance is to publish a list of persons that is evicting other people, the only businesses that will be willing to evict people will be the large corporations outside the city,” Winn said. “The only people that will be able to do business in Boston are those who have no shame.”
Like its predecessor, “Rental Rework 2.0” did not gain traction in the City Council. The proposal never moved forward.
In 2017, the administration proposed a package of five housing bills to support tenants and owners. Rents showed the first signs of stabilization in 2017, according to Dillon, but “The mayor told us: ‘Listen until all these new homes come online, every day I hear that people are being evicted, so we have to come up with a provisional plan,’” Dillon said.
Four months prior, Walsh had created the Office of Housing Stabilization, a group charged with helping “the residents of Boston with the housing crisis.” To direct the office, Walsh chose Lydia Edwards, an owner, and tenant who had also represented both groups in Boston’s housing court.
Walsh’s package of proposed laws had as its objective pleasing both tenant groups and those of owners. The mayor proposed three state laws: a tax credit of $1,500 for owners that maintain their properties rented below market rates; giving tenants in properties undergoing foreclosure the “right of refusal” to remain in their units, and making available the Massachusetts Committee of Public Service Attorneys to legally represent evicted tenants.
Dillon affirmed that paying for housing lawyers in this last case could save money. “It costs approximately $36,000 per year to house a family in a state shelter for the homeless, versus maintaining them in their homes,” she said. “Multiply this by thousands. This is a very, very, large number.” (It should be noted that not all evicted families end up in homeless shelters.)
The package also included two petitions for specific basic rules for Boston. One to formally add the inclusive zoning politics to the zoning laws of the city that guarantee construction of accessible units, even when city zones are reassigned. The other was the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act, known as “Rental Rework 3.0,” named after a long-time defender of social justice in Boston who died in 2016.
The city officials took action once they received the notice,” Dillon said. “We jumped through hoops and told tenants: ‘Call our offices, so you can obtain legal representation. Here are your rights. Don’t just walk away!’’
For owners, it seemed as if the city was on the side of the tenants. This really irritated some owners. Richard Parritz, the current president of SPOA, said recently: “There is no sympathy for an honest rental property owner who works hard and is affected by a really bad tenant.” Parritz says there was a bigger problem. The proposed law still had a specific list of reasons under which owners could begin a process of eviction. The so-called “just cause” varied from not paying the rent, to a tenant who uses the apartment unit for illegal purposes.
“We see ourselves as partners in solving the housing crisis,” Vasil said. “We are enthusiastic about working closely with the Walsh administration.”
But later Vasil strongly opposed the provisions of “just cause eviction,” saying that it would make it impossible for owners to evict tenants who permit drugs, prostitution, or gang activity on the property “because you have to demonstrate that the tenants themselves are causing the illegal activity,” Vasil said.
Edwards did not agree. “The reality is that 80% of evictions are due to failure to pay rent,” she said. “I don’t see how that will cause problems for development, or for people wanting to buy properties.” “Problem tenants are a minor distraction,” Edwards said.
Three months after it was presented, the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act had its first public hearing. The hearing was extended for more than six hours, with hundreds of residents, supporters, owners, and developers attending. There were immigrant tenants and immigrant landowners. There were professionals who spoke for real estate companies and professionals who spoke for evicted tenants who end up in their hospitals.
George C., who identified himself as a resident of Boston said, “The Jim Brooks Act would kill jobs… The intended consequence of the JBA is to empower political pressure groups that are perniciously parochial with the promise of giving tenants an advantageous situation for life.”
Lydia Lowe, from the Progressive China Association, said: “I do not agree with the comment that we cannot do anything regarding the [real estate] market. That’s the role of government. Every day we grant tax exemptions to businesses. Why can’t the government take the position of granting tenants their basic rights?”
“The problem that I have with the proposed law is that it does not deal with the causes of why we are here today,” said Taran Grigsby, general attorney for Boston Realty Advisors, a brokerage firm. “The construction of new housing has not kept up with the population’s growth for more than 25 years because there is already too much regulation,” Grigsby said. “Having grown up in the city, I see clearly the need to do something to increase the costs. Adding more regulation is not going to solve the problem.”
City Councilor Andrea Campbell asked Sheila Dillon if the compiling of data on evictions would lead to a real reduction in evictions. “How would this function in a concrete and tangible way to help the people?” Campbell asked. “I will be the first to say ‘I don’t know,’” Dillon responded. But there was a deeper question to answer: “Would the proposed law encourage owners to stop raising rents so dramatically?” continued Campbell. But Dillon did not have a clear response to this question either. “I have a lot of hope,” she said, “that if we begin to say that it is not good to vacate a building, that the owners will say ‘you’re right.’”
Former Councilor Salvatore LaMattina offered a hypothetical situation: “So suppose I live on Webster Street and the owner wants to sell the building. He asks all the tenants to vacate. I have lived there all my life and don’t want to leave. I want to keep paying the $1,500 per month that I have been paying. Would the proposed law let me stay there?”
“The owner could say, ‘I want you to begin paying $3,000’ and you would have to make the decision to stay or not if you could afford it,” Dillon responded.
“So it’s really no help to the person who pays $1,500 a month,” the ex-Councilor stated. LaMattina threw a copy of the ordinance on the table, leaned back in disgust, and said, “That’s wrong.”
The Jim Brooks Act was newly forwarded to the committee. It came up in an amended form before the whole City Council seven months later as “Rental Rework 4.0”.
The act had been destroyed. All the “just cause” eviction provisions had been eliminated, reducing the act to just slightly more than a tool to collect data on evictions, with a measure added to help ensure that owners inform the city of evictions. There were no more public hearings.
The Jim Brooks Act was transferred to the state legislature in January 2018. All that remained was a home rule petition that required owners to notify the city of their evictions and allow the city to notify evicted tenants of their rights. Emaciated, it seemed like a politically inoffensive proposal that would be able to pass the legislature.
Instead, on May 2, 2018, three years after the Act’s ideas were presented for the first time, the proposal was assassinated: “forwarded to be studied,” to never emerge from the Judicial Committee.
Officially, the legislators shelved the act for the most mundane procedural reasons.
The Act’s preamble required legislators to adopt the measure “precisely in the following way, except only for administrative or editorial changes.” The state legislators were opposed to not being able to add amendments.
“Philosophically, I am for it,” said state senator William Brownsberger, co-president of the judicial committee. “But we follow the rules. When someone gives us a law that we can’t fix, and it has problems, there is nowhere really we can go.”
Dillon admitted that blocking changes to the language of the Act was a risky measure. She said that the city was trying to maintain unity among a coalition of “ten different groups of tenants, the city, various persons” in the Mayor’s office. “When we got to a version that everyone agreed to, we didn’t want it changed… We didn’t want this compromise to unravel.”
Dillon did not specify real estate groups in her coalition. The groups of owners criticized the Walsh administration throughout the proposal process, saying that the administration spent few months in conversation with them.
“The problem was not technical. This was about ideology. It was about who deserves to say ‘this is a crisis.’ This is an excuse to play politics with our lives,” City Life’s Lisa Owens stated.
Brownsberger rejects this accusation. The act was not viable, he says, and it would have made significant and unsustainable changes to the rental laws of Boston. The Act’s exemptions don’t adequately protect the small owners, he says. It also included significant measures on foreclosures, “which didn’t have anything to do with the general problem of displacement.
Possibly the most important was that the act included broad language that would have changed the way in which evictions are defined. For example, if an owner decides not to renew a rental contract that has expired, this would constitute an eviction. Developers and owners called that a violation of basic contractual law.
“The motivation for the act is good,” Brownsberger said. “I am interested and hope to work with folks to find a better solution.”
“You will hear more from us,” said Owens. “We can’t give ourselves the luxury of stopping because an elected official decided not to act in our name.”
A “fight for modern fair housing?
Three years and basically nothing! Supporters were not able to approve even one of Walsh’s housing proposals on Beacon Hill. But there is still a separate proposal to compile data on evictions pending in City Council. It’s not a home rule petition and does not require sadism approval of the legislature. However, housing experts say that the proposal is of limited use, because it would ask owners to report evictions, but it lacks an enforcement mechanism.
The Jim Brooks Act was a “modest, very modest proposal,” said Dillon. “I believe it would have done much good.”
If the last three years have demonstrated anything to Boston, it is that, in the end, the construction of more and better affordable homes will resolve the problem. Regional housing plans will resolve the problem. Leaving aside local protectionism will resolve the problem. Financing large projects to expand transportation will also resolve the problem.
Here’s a case where numbers could provide a powerful accountability that could help Boston to follow its path, help it to nourish the real estate boom, to grow the economy without returning to restrictive rent control, to support tenants and owners, all while doing what Mayor Walsh says, “maintaining Boston as a city for all.” But the City’s efforts to collect that data failed.
In sum, this is an immoral housing policy, which seeks whatever excuses are permitted to allow the real estate industry to continue constructing, thereby gentrifying, evicting, and displacing vulnerable families disproportionately, and it uses the notion of protecting the small owner against the bad tenant to create a hostile environment to whatever measure is proposed to mitigate the housing crisis in Boston.
In conclusion: They are robbing us of our right to decent housing.