How Boston’s Big Attempt At Rental Law Reform Failed

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Triple-deckers along Edgewood Street in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Triple-deckers along Edgewood Street in Dorchester. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Lisa Owens' voice wavers between defiant and despondent. “Thousands of people are going to be in danger of losing their homes because they don’t know their legal rights,” she says. “It’s unconscionable that our elected officials refuse to act in such a crisis time in our city. We see this as a real betrayal of our trust.”

Two days before, on May 2, Beacon Hill lawmakers made a little-noticed decision. They referred House bill H.4142 "to study." It’s one of those Beacon Hill euphemisms for a common enough occurrence; “study” is the place where policy proposals go to die.

H.4142 is also known as the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act. A “very modest” proposal, in the words of Boston’s housing chief Sheila Dillon, the act was designed to do two simple things: provide the city a way to track evictions in real time, and allow the city to notify tenants of their rights when they’ve been given a notice to quit. The bill would have only applied to Boston, but as a home rule petition it required approval from the state Legislature.

Home rule petitions aren’t easy to pass. But this one came with a special history. The Jim Brooks Act was the last, meager gasp of a three-year-long effort, and equally vigorous pushback, to enact changes in Boston’s rental laws to cope with what advocates call an “eviction crisis” in the city.

“Who do you stand with?” Owens wants to ask elected officials. She is executive director with City Life/Vida Urbana, an affordable housing advocacy group. For her, the procedural snuffing out of the Jim Brooks Act wasn’t just one of those processy rally-the-stakeholders-tweak-the-bill’s-language-and-file-it-again kind of moments.

That’s because there was nothing left to tweak, Owens says. The original rental reforms they’d proposed had been stripped down by years of compromise with landlords and developers. She blames the real estate lobby. “What does that say about where we are as a state?” she says. “It’s tough to swallow.”

Lawmaking is never that simple, of course, let alone lawmaking surrounding an issue as urgent and contentious as housing. But much of it comes down to a basic question: In a rapidly transforming city, what role should government play in balancing the interests of tenants and landlords? Should government play any role at all?

Boston had some bold, controversial proposals to answer those questions. We’ve been following the proposals for the past three years. This is the story of the quiet death of those big ideas.

Keeping Boston 'A City For Everyone'

Boston is booming. The numbers describe it all, and numbers are central characters in this story.

Median home prices in the city are up 55 percent since 2005, according to the Greater Boston Housing Report Card from Northeastern University. Prices in South Boston and Jamaica Plain have risen to altitude sickness-inducing levels, up more than 80 percent.

Rents, too, are soaring — up nearly 55 percent since 2009. The average market rent for the inner Boston core is now more than $2,800. “Since renters, on average, have substantially less income than homeowners,” the report says, “the spike in rents has been particularly severe in its impact on lower-income working families.”

The only way to satisfy that demand is to build more housing. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has pledged to create 53,000 additional units in the city by 2030. “We set, and are surpassing, our historic housing goals in every income bracket,” Walsh said in his 2017 State of the City address. “We’re going to use every tool at our disposal to keep Boston a city of neighborhoods and a city for everyone.”

Maverick Square, in East Boston (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Maverick Square, in East Boston (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In the meantime, there’s amplified upward pressure on the city’s existing housing stock. In some neighborhoods, such as East Boston, developers buy older units. They make for easy flips. The flips fetch considerably higher rents.

It’s the old story of gentrification, writ anew for Boston in 2018. One take is that this is exactly how American urban centers are being revitalized, that gentrification’s churn is an unalloyed good, the unavoidable outcome of an enviably strong economy.

Step beyond that whitepaper view, however, and you find the troublesome truth of lived experience. Affordable housing advocates say that Boston is in the throes of an “eviction crisis." In some neighborhoods, advocates and even some city officials claim a growing number of whole “building clearouts," where developers summarily evict longtime tenants in favor of much higher-paying newcomers. The shove from the market’s invisible hand gets a bit sharper with the use of Massachusetts’ no fault eviction statute. “We get over 100 calls per week from tenants who are in some kind of distress,” says Boston housing chief Dillon.

By 2015, a coalition of tenants’ rights advocates and some policymakers felt the eviction problem had reached a critical mass. But they didn’t have the concrete numbers to prove it. And as mentioned, numbers are central characters in this story. The advocates called for a revolutionary set of reforms to Boston’s eviction laws that included restricting situations in which the state’s no fault eviction statute could be used, requiring nonbinding mediation for sudden big rent increases, offering legal representation to evicted tenants, and municipal data gathering. Together, the proposals represented the most sweeping changes to the city’s housing laws since 1994.

Advocates called it "just cause" eviction reform.

Landlords, such as Skip Schloming, former president of the Small Property Owners Association, called it something else: “Rent control.”

'Rents Are Rising So Rapidly That No Mortals Can Pay'

December 2015. We went to East Boston to meet Olga Pasco. She’d been renting the same Maverick Street apartment for 25 years. Earlier that year, her building had been sold to a developer who promptly raised her rent from $800 to $2,000 per month. She couldn’t pay and was evicted.

Pasco had nowhere to go. When we met her, she was living in a church. "It's nice, but it's not home," Pasco said.

Her bed was upstairs in the nave of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. A mattress, wedged behind the pews, about a dozen rows back from an altar dominated by a life-sized painting of Jesus.

"[Pastor Don] opened the doors for us to live here because the landlords — who have all the money in the world — they threw us on the streets without compassion,” Pasco said. “They knew we were human beings, but nothing mattered to them. They put us in this situation. We didn't ask to leave our homes, especially in the way they threw us out."

"Now we’re here again in Boston fighting for housing. How many times do we have to fight this?”

Lemmie Horton, of Mattapan

Housing advocates consider Eastie one of the hotspots in what they call the city’s “displacement crisis." On one block, Matt Nickell, attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, pointed to five buildings that had been recently snapped up and flipped by developers. Rent increases anywhere from 30 to 200 percent were common.

“Tenants are, more and more, seeing this as a threat to their very livelihood, their housing, their life,” Nickell said. “Rents are rising so rapidly that no mortals can pay them."

A few months earlier, September 2015, the first draft of a major rental reform proposal had quietly begun circulating City Hall.

Call it “Rental Rework 1.0.” The proposed ordinance contained everything tenant advocates hoped for, including tracking evictions, and a “just cause” clause that stated tenants could only be evicted for a handful of specific reasons.

But their biggest of big ideas took aim at rental prices themselves. Advocates wanted Boston to require nonbinding mediation between landlords and tenants for any rental increases over 5 percent.

The idea ran into immediate problems.

“The dark ages of rent control,” is how Greg Vasil put it. The CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board told us the ordinance would be “an absolute nightmare” and would chill the Boston market to a point where the city wouldn’t be able to produce anywhere near the number of new units the Walsh administration was calling for.

“How would it cut in a free market world,” Vasil said, “where America is a free market economy, and we say don’t invest in our cities? It will stop all housing construction, period.”

It also stopped Rental Rework 1.0. The specter of rent control was just too politically frightening. No city councilor would formally sponsor the ordinance. By mid-December, the idea was shelved.

'We Don’t Even Know The Numbers'

March 2016, Boston City Hall. A long list of public commenters, two overflow rooms to hold hundreds of residents and landlords, and an emotional, raucous, hours-long meeting. For the first time, the City Council agreed to hear testimony on a new rental proposal. Call this one “Rental Rework 2.0."

“It’s time that the city stop this,” said Lemmie Horton. The Mattapan resident drew a line between Boston’s current rental crunch and past civil rights actions. “In ‘64 in Newark they fought for housing. ‘65, Chicago with Martin Luther King, they fought for housing. Now we’re here again in Boston fighting for housing. How many times do we have to fight this?”

It had been three months since “Rework 1.0” had failed. Version 2.0 trimmed out the politically toxic mediation clause, and instead opted to redouble efforts on an even more basic problem. Advocates were saying there’s an eviction crisis, but no one knew how large that crisis is.

City housing chief Dillon testified at the hearing. Walsh is a champion of data, she said. This is, after all, the administration that launched a series of data-visualization dashboards, mounted on a wall facing the mayor’s desk, that allows him to track how the city is doing on meeting key municipal objectives.

But when it comes to evictions, there’s a data black hole.

“We need to track where this is happening most,” Dillon told the City Council. “What’s the profile of people who are getting evicted so we can put safeguards in place for them? We need data so we can respond effectively.”

There is, in fact, some data readily available. Landlord groups say housing court cases provide a fair snapshot of eviction numbers, and the records are already public. City officials did tell us that they use student and nonprofit volunteers to comb through some 5,000 annual city housing court records to track eviction cases. However, the tedious, time consuming process yields data that’s often a year or two old. Dillon wanted numbers in close to real time.

“In the universe of tenants who are getting evictions, the vast majority do not reach housing court,” Owens, the City Life/Vida Urbana director, told the council. “[Tenants] get an eviction notice and they don’t know they have the right to go to court. They leave. That’s why we don’t have the data.”

The new ordinance would fix that by requiring landlords to inform the city whenever they served a 30-day notice to quit. At least one owner advocacy group, MassLandlords, pointed out that the data would also be made available to tenant rights groups. That kind of tracking alarmed developers and property owners.

“These notices are not good at all because they will tell advocates exactly which owners they will target with their tactics,” said Schloming, formerly of the Small Property Owners Association. “There will be tricks of rent withholding, the free rent trick and rent strikes by all of an owner's tenants.”

Greg Winn, CEO of Winn Companies, issued a more dire warning. He told the council that even his big Boston-based company, with about $5 billion worth of real estate in 11 states, would be harmed by the reporting requirement.

“If the whole goal of this ordinance is to put out a list of those people who are evicting others, the only [companies] who are willing to kick out those people [would be] the out of town large corporations,” Winn said. “The only people that are going to be able to do business in Boston are the ones who have no shame.”

Like its predecessor, “Rental Rework 2.0” failed to gain traction in the City Council. The proposal never advanced.

'Good Causes' Vs. 'No Sympathy'

January 2017. One bill becomes five.

Walsh was not an early adopter of rental reform. (Following WBUR’s coverage of the issue in 2015, Walsh limited his opinion to a tepid, “We could do something.”) But by 2017, the administration proposed a package of five housing bills to support tenants and landlords.

Rents were also showing the first signs of stabilizing, according to Dillon. “The mayor said to us, ‘Listen, until all of this new housing comes online, I’m hearing every day about people being evicted, so we’ve got to come up with an interim plan.’ ” Dillon said. “So that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Four months earlier, Walsh had created the Office of Housing Stability, a group tasked with assisting “Boston residents in housing crisis," according to the mayor’s office. Walsh picked Lydia Edwards to lead the office. An East Boston resident, Edwards was both a landlord and tenant who’d also represented both groups in Boston housing court. “Even the courts are overwhelmed by the amount of development,” Edwards said.

Walsh’s bill package aimed to please both tenant and landlord groups. The mayor proposed three statewide laws: a $1,500 income tax credit for landlords who keep their units rented at below market rates; he proposed giving tenants in foreclosure properties the first “right of refusal” to stay in their units; and he moved to offer evicted tenants legal representation via the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services.

Dillon claimed paying for housing attorneys could ultimately save money.

“It costs approximately $36,000 per year to house a family in state shelter right now versus keeping them in their homes,” Dillon said. “Multiply that by thousands. That is a very, very large number.”

Not all evicted families end up in homeless shelters. When asked how much the legal assistance would cost the city and how it would pay, Dillon couldn’t say.

The package also included two home rule petitions specific to Boston. One to add inclusionary zoning policies formally into the city’s zoning laws that would ensure the construction of affordable units even as areas of the city are rezoned.

The other was the Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act. Call it “Rental Rework 3.0.”

Named after a longtime Boston social justice advocate who died in 2016, this version of the ordinance would continue to require landlords to inform the city’s housing office whenever they served an eviction notice. But it had quietly dropped the provision that would have allowed tenant advocacy groups access that eviction data.

Nevertheless, city officials would still act. “Once we get that notice,” Dillon said, “we’d turn right around and say to the tenants, 'Call our office, here’s how you can get legal representation, here’s your rights. Don’t leave.' ”

To landlords, it seemed as if the city was siding with tenants. That still rankles some property owners. Richard Parritz, current president of the Small Property Owners Association, recently told us, “There’s no sympathy for a really hard working honest property owner who gets screwed by a really bad tenant.”

Parritz says there was a bigger problem. The act still had a list of specific reasons under which landlords could begin eviction proceedings. The so called “good causes” ranged from failure to pay rent, to the tenant using the unit for illegal purposes.

That didn’t stop the Walsh administration from trying to showcase the collaborative craft of its policy making efforts.

Vasil, of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, and housing stability chief Edwards, insisted to Radio Boston that dialogue was the word of the day, soon after announcing the proposal.

“We view ourselves as partners in the housing crisis,” Vasil said. “We’re excited to work closely with the Walsh administration.”

“Together we’re going to come up with a wonderful set of ideas,” Edwards added.

It was a thin veneer.

In that same conversation, Vasil strongly objected to the “good cause” provisions, saying it would make it impossible for owners to evict tenants who allow drugs, prostitution or gang activity on the property. “Because you have to prove that the leaseholders themselves are causing the activity,” Vasil said.

Edwards disagreed. “The reality is 80 percent of evictions are due to nonpayment of rent,” she said. “I don’t see how that is going to prevent development or people from being able to own property.”

Problem tenants were a minor distraction, Edwards said. “I don’t want us to be dealing with a parade of horribles.”

'More Regulation Is Not Going To Solve The Problem'

March 6, 2017. Boston City Council Committee on Government Operations. Three months after its introduction, the Jim Brooks Act gets its first public hearing.

The hearing goes on for more than six hours.

Hundreds of residents, advocates, property owners and developers attended. It’s a cross section of modern Boston, but the sections don’t cut along customary lines. There were immigrant tenants and immigrant landlords. Professionals who spoke for real estate corporations, and professionals who spoke for evicted patients who end up in their hospitals.

The one thing that unites them? Everyone cares about this issue. A lot.

A sampling:

Jean Ouyang, a small landlord in Allston: “This bill tries to solve the housing issue by punishing only one side: landlords.”

Dr. Lara Jirmanis, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center: “At 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, a woman walked into our ER with her 6-year-old and her 2-year-old in tow. She’d gotten home that evening to find caution tape taped over her door. She didn’t know what to do, so she came to our ER. We see a couple of cases like this each week.”

George C., a self-identified Boston resident: “The [Jim Brooks Act] will kill jobs...The intended consequence of the JBA is to empower perniciously parochial political pressure groups with the promise to give tenants a lifetime sinecure.”

Lydia Lowe, Chinese Progressive Association: “I disagree with the comment that we cannot do anything about the market. That is the role of government. Every day we give tax breaks to corporations. Why can’t government take a stand to give tenants their basic rights?”

But would the act actually do that? Would it protect tenants?

“The issue I have with the bill is that it does not address the root causes of why we are here today,” said Taran Grigsby, general counsel for Boston Realty Advisors, a brokerage firm. New housing construction hasn’t kept pace with population growth for more than 25 years because there’s already too much regulation, Grigsby said. “Having grown up in the city, I clearly see the need to do something about rising costs. ... Adding more regulation is not going to solve the problem.”

Councilor Andrea Campbell took a more sympathetic tone. She asked housing chief Dillon whether gathering eviction data would lead to an actual decline in evictions. “How is this in concrete, tangible ways helping folks?” Campbell asked.

“I’ll be the first to say, I don’t know,” Dillon responded. There was a deeper question to consider, Dillon said. Would the law encourage landlords to stop issuing dramatic rent increases? But for this question, too, Dillon had no clear answer. “I’m very hopeful,” she said, “if we start saying it’s not OK to empty out a building, landlords are going to say, ‘you’re right.’ ”

Councilor Salvatore LaMattina was less sympathetic.

He offered a hypothetical. “So, I live on Webster Street. The landlord wants to sell it. He asks all the tenants to leave. I’ve lived there all my life and I don’t want to leave. I want to pay the $1,500 I’ve been paying. Does this allow me to stay there?”

“The landlord could say, ‘I want you to now pay $3,000,’ and you can make the decision whether you can pay that or not,” Dillon responded.

“So it really doesn’t help the person who’s paying $1,500 a month.”

“It might.”

LaMattina tossed a copy of the ordinance on the table, leaned back in disgust, and said, “It does not.”

The Jim Brooks Act was referred back to committee. It emerged in amended form before the full City Council seven months later. Call this one “Rental Rework 4.0.”

The measure had been gutted. Every “good cause” eviction provision was stripped out, reducing the act to little more than an eviction data collection tool with an enforcement measure tacked on to help ensure landlords reported evictions to the city. There were no more public hearings.

On October 4, 2017, the act passed the City Council by a 10-3 vote. But even some of the yeas weren’t happy about it.

“What will this do to solve the problem?” Campbell told the Bay State Banner. “I was extremely devastated to learn this might do very little.”

'We Kind Of Go By Rules Up Here'

The Jim Brooks Act moved to the state Legislature in January 2018.

It’s worth recapping how much the reform measure had been whittled down from its original 2015 ambitions. Nonbinding mediation for large rent hikes? Gone. Informing tenants’ rights groups about evictions? Gone. Every “good cause” rule restricting reasons why landlords could issue notices to quit? Gone.

All that remained was a home rule petition that would require landlords to notify the city of evictions, and allow the city to notify tenants of their rights. It seemed like an innocuous, if emaciated, policy proposal that could win passage in the Legislature.

Instead, on May 2, 2018, three years after the ideas behind the act were first introduced, the bill was killed -- "put to study,” never to emerge from the Judiciary Committee.

Officially, legislators spiked the bill for the most procedurally mundane reasons. The bill’s preamble required that legislators adopt the measure “precisely as follows, except for clerical or editorial changes of form only.” State lawmakers balked at not being allowed to add amendments.

“I’m all over the issue philosophically,” said state Sen. William Brownsberger, Judiciary co-chair. “But we kind of go by rules up here. When someone gives us a bill that we can’t fix, and it has problems, there’s nowhere we really can go.”

We can almost hear Dillon shaking her head on the other side of the phone. “Of course we’re disappointed,” she tells us after the bill’s demise.

Dillon concedes that locking down the bill’s language was a risky move. She says the city was trying to hold together a fractious coalition of “10 different tenant groups, the city council, multiple people” in the mayor’s office. “By the time you come up with a version that everyone’s happy with, you don’t want it changed. ... We didn’t want that compromise to unravel.”

(Dillon doesn’t specify real estate groups in her coalition. Landlord groups were critical of the Walsh administration through the entire life of the bill, saying the administration didn’t engage in many months of conversation with them.)

Lisa Owens is less circumspect. “The issue wasn’t technical,” the City Life/Vida Urbana executive director says. “This was about ideology. This was about who deserves to say this a crisis. That is an excuse to play politics with our lives.”

Brownsberger rejects that accusation. The bill wasn’t workable, he says, and instead would have made significant and untenable changes to Boston rental laws. The bill’s exemptions didn’t adequately protect small property owners, he says. It also included significant measures on foreclosures “that had nothing to do with the general issue of displacement.”

Perhaps more important, the bill included broad language that would have changed how evictions are defined. For example, if a landlord decided not to renew a normally expired lease, that would have constituted an eviction. Developers and property owners called that a violation of basic contract law.

“The motivation for the bill is a good one,” Brownsberger says. “I look forward to working with people to find a better solution.”

“You will be hearing more from us,” Owens, the tenant advocate, says. “We can’t afford to stop because some elected official decided not to act on our behalf.”

A 'Modern Day Fair Housing Fight'?

Three years and basically nothing. Advocates couldn’t get a single one of Walsh’s housing proposals passed on Beacon Hill. One still languishes in the City Council.

(There is a separate eviction data collection proposal pending in the council. It’s not a home rule petition and doesn’t require approval from the Legislature. Housing experts say the proposal is of limited use, however, because it would ask landlords to report evictions but has no enforcement mechanism attached to it.)

The Jim BrooksAct was a “modest” proposal, Dillon says, something she repeats multiple times when we talked a few days following the act’s defeat. “Very modest,” she says, “I think it would have done a lot of good.”

It’s exactly that kind of language that worries Parritz, of the Small Property Owners Association. “This is how rent control began back in the 1960s. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, it’s all reasonable, reasonable, reasonable.’ But then it ratcheted up.”

Parritz isn’t the only one who sees Boston’s current housing tensions through the lens of the 1960s. “We see this as the modern day fair housing fight,” Owens says. “I would ask our elected officials, ‘In the '60s where would you have been? Which side would you have been on when we were debating the Fair Housing Act?' ”

Owens says advocates will be pushing for more. “We heard support for stronger rent protection in every neighborhood that we organize in,” Owens says. “[They] want us to move not just the Jim Brooks Act, but something much stronger.”

They have a tough fight ahead of them. It’s also debatable whether a “just cause” eviction statute would do anything to solve underlying market pressures. Look to San Francisco, where multiple “just cause” ordinances are on the books, and you see a city still in the grip of intense housing pain.

If the past three years have shown Boston anything, it’s that, ultimately, building more and better affordable housing will solve the problem. Regional housing plans will solve the problem. Putting aside protectionist localism and NIMBYism will solve the problem. Funding major transportation expansion projects will solve the problem.

Should be doable, right? After all Boston filled in the Back Bay, reclaimed some of the harbor, created land to transform the city into the Hub of the Universe. That self-satisfied historical perspective popped up during public comment at City Hall during one housing hearing.

For those of us who’ve been following the story for a while, this is its most perplexing aspect. Everyone agrees that Greater Boston needs to think big about the housing challenge. This is also the 21st century, where data is king. But even as Boston glitters with growth and possibility, the jewel of the state’s information and ideas economy, when it comes to rental units, Boston lacks the granular data to describe the basic scope and scale of that challenge.

Think of Olga Pasco, evicted and sleeping in her East Boston church pews in 2015. “Don’t turn her story into a number,” would have been the battle cry in a different generation. But here is a case where numbers could provide a powerful accounting that might help Boston navigate its way forward, to help it nurture the real estate boom, grow the economy without returning to restrictive rent control, support tenants and property owners, all while, as Mayor Walsh says, keeping Boston a “city for everyone.”

But the city’s attempts to collect that data failed. Pasco’s story has not been reduced to a number. It’s become something even less than that.

This segment aired on May 16, 2018.

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