City Council Holds Hearing on Just-Cause Evictions

By John Lynds

Attorney Jeffrey Turk of the law firm, Turk & Quijano, said the Right to Remain Coalition’s proposed city ordinance calling for ‘just-cause’ evictions sounds a lot like rent control but only worse.

“It’s not rent control, it’s property control,” said Turk at a City Council hearing Monday on the issue.

For two years the Coalition has been lobbying the City Council to adopt a city ordinance prohibiting property owners of four or more units from evicting tenants for ‘no cause’ when leases expire, which they argue has been causing displacement in hot real estate markets like East Boston.

Massachusetts law currently allows all landlords to evict tenants in privately owned, non-subsidized housing at the end of their lease terms if they wish to do so. This means that renters in market-rate housing can be evicted after their lease expires, or at any time if they don’t have a lease, without any reason given. The Coalition argues this has given real estate investors “the green light to buy and sell buildings based on a business plan of displacement to seek higher profits”.

Members of the Coalition, like Vida Urbana’s Lisa Owen Pinto of East Boston, testified Monday that the group is seeking to halt building clear-outs by large property owners and bank evictions of former homeowners post-foreclosure; require large property owners and banks to provide a Just Cause for eviction, and to notify the city when terminating a tenancy for a cause other than nonpayment or tenant violation of the rental contract; ensure that tenants know their legal rights and resources available to prevent homelessness; and lastly provide the City with a means of collecting data on displacement due to evictions and rent increases.

With real estate being a capital-based business with most, if not all, private real estate investors, whether large or small, looking for a return on their investment  Turk said tenants seeking these changes to the law need to understand one major flaw in their proposal–there should be no assumption that a lease will be renewed.

“All this ordinance does is protect residents who do no vacate an apartment at the end of their lease terms,” said Turk. “What people need to understand is a lease is a simple contract and that contract has protection for both the tenant and landlord. The landlord can not kick you out before the terms of the lease expires and they can not force you to stay. However, this proposal allows tenants to violate their leases by remaining after the terms of the lease expires.”

Turk added that the ordinance would also make it harder for landlords to get rid of problem tenants when they do violate the terms of their lease like first providing a written warning.

“All the things the Coalition is asking for in many ways already exists in Housing Court,” said Turk. “If you are looking for a lawyer to get educated on your rights they are in the hallway, if you are looking for data on evictions and what the causes were the court has that information. This ordinance would cause redundancy at the cost of the city.”

Turk also argued in most cases tenants have more rights than landlords and the average eviction process can take almost a year to be settled.

However, Pinto said the Coalitions intent was not to hurt small property owners but to reel in larger developers and real estate investors. She added that the Coalition has made several changes to the ordinance.

The group is no longer proposing that tenants have a right to a one-time mediation session if an eviction is due to a requested rent increase of more than 5 percent.  Instead, they  propose that when covered landlords terminate a tenancy for a cause other than nonpayment or tenant violation of the rental contract, the notice must also be filed with the City, in order for landlords to be able to move forward with eviction cases in Housing Court. These causes include an owner or relative moving into the unit, tenant refusal to renew a lease, rent increases.  Also, the group is proposing that prior to the end of the notice period/beginning of an eviction case, the City’s Office of Housing Stability and/or a tenant rights organization would then inform the tenants of their rights under existing law and resources such as legal support or advocacy resources available to them.

Even with those changes the proposed ordinance didn’t sit well with people like Sarah Mathison, 2016 Rental Housing Association president.

“While we recognize and agree there is a need for safe and affordable housing we don’t believe this ordinance would solve the problem,” said Mathison. “There are already a number of legal protections in place for tenants but when you limit a property owners rights to do what he or she sees fit with their investment you limit housing production, which goes against the current administrations wish to create more housing of all kinds.”

Mathison said if there is more bureaucracy and red tape placed on property owners in Boston they may decide to do business elsewhere.

Mayor Martin Walsh’s Chief of Housing Shiela Dillon testified that the mayor did in fact want to create tens of thousands of new housing by 2030 of all kinds but the displacement issue did concern him.

“What we are seeing is that in this real estate market people are buying homes at a higher price and when they do renovations they are increasing the rent for those units,” said Dillon. “When tenants can’t afford those increases they are forced to move out.”

However, while displacement can be heartbreaking for longtime residents who can no longer afford a neighborhood they have gotten use to living in, some homeowners in neighborhood’s like Eastie are unapologetic because they assume all the financial risks that come with owning a home.

“I agree that affordable housing and the lack of an adequate supply is an issue,” said Eastie resident Joshua Scott, a homeowner who testified Monday. “Where I disagree is with the notion that private owners should be responsible for providing and maintaining said affordable housing.”

While Scott said he understands that the discussion Monday is not one meant to discuss rent control or a direct attempt at trying to limit rent increases but still had concerns.

“It can not be denied that the testimonies and discussions today were meant to use hearing as a start at decreasing evictions and displacements by trying to have private individuals bear a lot of the financial burden that exists when it is expected that rents stay artificially lower than what the market allows as labor costs are increasing as well as materials, taxes and insurance including a new flood insurance cost that will impact a significant number of properties throughout Boston,” he said. “I will conclude that the underlying issue is that homes sale prices and values have risen, this has led to increased rent amounts. This also leads to increased carrying costs for an owner, considering mortgage, taxes, and insurance, doubling or tripling so how can it be expected that rental prices stay relatively the same? I doubt there are many if any among those in this room that own a property that would sell should they decide to for less than what the market allows. So if you are seeking double or triple what you paid how can you expect the rents to remain relatively unchanged?”

Several fair housing groups gathered in City Hall Plaza on Monday,to rally for a just-cause eviction ordinance from the City Council an hour before a scheduled hearing on the matter.

Several fair housing groups gathered in City Hall Plaza on Monday,to rally for a just-cause eviction ordinance from the City Council an hour before a scheduled hearing on the matter.

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