By John Lynds
Mayor Martin Walsh last week proposed a new home rule petition to the City Council aimed at protecting residential tenants from arbitrary, unreasonable, discriminatory, or retaliatory evictions.
The home rule petition, said Walsh, would also help ensure that tenants and former homeowners are aware of their rights under state law.
“This legislation is just one piece of our larger, city-wide agenda to prevent displacement,” said Walsh. “It’s critical that we strike a good balance between protecting tenants’ rights and supporting them during challenging times, and recognizing the important role landlords play in the development and growth of our city.”
Walsh’s proposal comes after a two year lobbying campaign from the tenants’ rights coalition, Right to Remain, who have been calling on the Mayor and City Council to end ‘no cause’ evictions throughout the city. The coalition wants the city 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.
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”.
Walsh outlined in his petition the terms under which landlords can evict a tenant or a former homeowner living in their foreclosed unit. The conditions include failing to pay rent; violating the lease terms; creating a nuisance or damaging the property; using the unit for illegal purposes; refusing to execute an extension/renewal of the current lease; refusing the landlord access to make repairs; having an unapproved subtenant; if the landlord wants to take possession of the unit for his or her own use or for the use or occupancy of his or her immediate family member(s) to occupy; or a former owner still living in a foreclosed home but refuses to pay reasonable rent.
According to the petition the city would create requirements for landlords to notify the City in case of eviction. Landlords will be required to provide the City of Boston’s Office of Housing Stability with a copy of any notice to quit, lease non-renewal letter, or notice of fixed term lease expiration within two days of serving the notice on the tenant or former homeowner.
In the event of an eviction, tenants have many rights they can execute. To ensure that tenants know these rights, once notified of the potential eviction, the Office of Housing Stability will notify tenants and former landlords of their rights by mail. Failure to provide the City with notice would void a landlord’s right to proceed with the eviction.
The petition would apply to homeowners of seven rental units or more.
The plan has been met with skepticism in hot real estate markets like East Boston–calling the petition a move towards ‘rent control’ because the language in Walsh’s filing does not outline what ‘reasonable’ rent increases would mean for landlords and tenants.
With real estate being a capital-based business with most, if not all, private real estate investors, whether large or small, are looking for a return on their investment. Real estate attorneys like Jeffrey Turk have said there should be no assumption that a lease will be renewed and property owners have the right to increase rent dictated by the market.
“What people need to understand is a lease is a simple contract and that contract has protection for both the tenant and landlord,” said Turk at a recent City Council hearing on the issue. “The landlord can not kick you out before the terms of the lease expires and they can not force you to stay.”
However, some fear the petition gives credence to Right to Remains’ position that tenants should be able to stay after a lease expires and undergo a sometimes lengthy eviction process.
The Mayor’s clause that landlords have to notify the City in case of eviction has some worried it will add another layer to an already exhausting process of evicting a tenant.
Under Walsh’s plan if a tenant refuses to renew a lease due to a rent increase and the landlord fails to notify the city, the landlord loses the right to proceed with an eviction. Under Massachusetts laws, that tenant can stay until the eviction process plays out.