City hall hears proposal of just cause eviction law

All photos: Sam Amore

Displaced tenants and members of over 35 tenant’s rights organizations gathered outside of Boston City Hall on March 14, advocating that the city councilors pass a just cause eviction law. Also present were members of the Small Property Owner’s Association, a group of local landlords who are strictly opposed to the bill’s passing.

The gathering was spearheaded by City Life/Vida Urbana (CL/VU) and the Right to Remain Coalition of Boston. Their proposed just cause eviction law would institute protections for tenants, making it more difficult for landlords to order them out of their housing.

Among the talking points in the proposal are provisions suggesting that building clear-outs and bank-related evictions after foreclosure of a housing unit ought to be illegal.

“There is a displacement crisis in Boston,” a pamphlet provided by CL/VU said. “Massachusetts state law allows landlords- whether owner-occupants, giant real estate corporations, or foreclosing banks- to evict tenants in privately owned, non-subsidized housing ‘no fault.’ This means that renters in market-rate housing can be evicted after their lease expires… without having done anything to cause or deserve loss of their housing.”

Maria Christina Blanco, community organizer at CL/VU, said that the ordinance is extremely important to the community.

“We think [this] is an emergency measure to stop displacement in the city and it needs to be passed right away,” Blanco said. “There’s a hearing today, but it’s not up for a vote yet, and we want to push for getting a vote on this ordinance.”

Blanco mentioned a website called BostonDisplacement.org that went live on the day of the protest. It features an interactive map as part of an ongoing project to chronicle stories of people who have been evicted from their housing.

“[The map] is based on a similar project in the San Francisco Bay area, which is going through similar problems and pressures,” Blanco said.

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Tenant activists carried keys symbolizing displaced or gentrified neighborhoods in Boston.

Advocates of the just cause eviction law held up keys made of cardboard and spray-painted gold and silver, representing stories from particular neighborhoods in Boston where they claim displacement is at its worst. Members of various organizations also read testimonies from various displaced tenants across the city, sharing stories of low-income families who faced hardship due to eviction.

Irene Glassman, an advocate of the law, read a statement submitted from a man named Kanut Harris, from Hyde Park bordering Mattapan. Harris said he fears that his housing, which is managed by a company called Advanced Property Management, is in jeopardy.

“I got a notice stating that my landlord needs $750 more per month,” Harris’ statement read. “I’m on a fixed income [and] I can’t afford that, there’s no way I can. If I disagree with what they said, they’ll proceed with an eviction notice. I’m 72 years old and I don’t see myself being homeless,” said Harris. “At my age where am I going to go? Each morning I’m leaving my apartment and looking for some kind of a note attached to my door.”

However, not everyone is in favor of the just cause eviction proposition. Skip Schloming, president of the Small Property Owners Association in Boston, said the law can drastically impact landlords in negative ways. One of these ways, Schloming said, could be a rent-control provision in the law.

Schloming’s organization helped to dismantle the Boston’s rent-control law in 1994, and the city has not had one since.

“Their tactics with owners can be highly vicious, kind of unfair, and possibly criminal,” Schloming said of the tenant’s rights groups. He accused them of “brow beating the owners to keep their rents low” and practicing a “free rent trick” in order to scam owners out of money.

Orlando Velazco, resident of Roxbury, shares his experiences with displacement with the crowd.

Orlando Velazco, resident of Roxbury, shares his experiences with displacement with the crowd.

“State law allows tenants to withhold rent if there are code violations,” Schloming said. “So tenants will receive an eviction notice and then call in an inspector for repairs. When they find something that’s not up to code, they’ll say they have been just withholding their rent instead of paying it. Sometimes, they’ll leave without having paid months worth of rent.”

While Schloming is correct about the state law regarding code violations, there is no clear evidence on either side to suggest that there is any kind of an epidemic happening in Boston. But Schloming did say that his organization is greatly concerned about the law.

“The proposal still has a rent-control aspect to it,” said Schloming. “If you limit the reasons for eviction, the advocates are [still] going to want put a rent control feature into the proposal in order to prevent a large rent increase to evict tenants,” said Schloming.

Rent control, Schloming said, is problematic for landlords because it leaves very little room for them to make repairs.

“One of the things that happened with rent control was that if you did capital improvement, you went to the board and were paid for the repair over 20 years,” said Schloming. “They chiseled you down. [The board] would tell you ‘well, this wasn’t necessary to do, this was unnecessary workmanship, and between those two, they’d knock you down from what you wanted in a rent increase. And owners learned that it’s not worth doing a capital improvement, because [they were] going to lose money,” Schloming said.

When property owners were given no incentive to make repairs, their property fell into ruin, causing even more tenants to be displaced.

“You had a lot of apartments back then being boarded up or bulldozed by the city,” said Schloming.

A student resident of Chinatown read a statement submitted by a displaced homeowner.

A student resident of Chinatown read a statement submitted by a displaced homeowner.

In its proposal, CL/VU proposed “tax breaks for landlords who are committed to community stabilization by keeping their rents within certain levels of affordability,” but doesn’t provide specific numerical figures. Schloming said that another solution could be to provide tenants with social workers or city officials to help them figure out where they can live following an eviction.

“We’ve never had an eviction,” Schloming said of his property, which he has been managing for 32 years. Schloming reports a pleasant relationship with his tenants, calling it a “business exchange.”

“I provide the housing, and they provide the money,” Schloming said. “You have to look at how things operate and find what’s best for people. I just feel that [this law] is an impossible burden on owners and an impossible goal, because you need to have some kind of social control over tenants,” said Schloming.

However, tenants disagree entirely, and maintain that the just-cause eviction law needs to be enacted in Boston and signed by Mayor Marty Walsh as soon as possible.

As of now, there is no follow-up meeting or vote on the proposed law scheduled in City Hall.

Boston citizens both for and against the just-cause eviction law gathered to testify inside City Hall.

Boston citizens both for and against the just-cause eviction law gathered to testify inside City Hall.

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