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Boston City Council to further study anti-displacement Jim Brooks Stabilization Act

Bill informs tenants on rights, city on evictions; officials split over needed strength of bill

Jule Pattison-Gordon

City councilors opted for continued examination of the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act — the outgrowth of anti-displacement activists’ Just Cause Eviction proposal — after concluding a six-hour hearing on the matter last week.

Sponsored by Mayor Martin Walsh, the ordinance is intended to be one tool against the displacement of long-term residents as rents rise across the city. Before the bill can be enacted it must be passed by the city council and the state legislature.

But councilors were wary of giving an immediate stamp of approval. Some said the ordinance seemed toothless, while others worried about burdens on landlords. Some councilors questioned the scope as well as the necessity of a new law.

If passed, the legislation would prevent landlords from evicting tenants without valid and explicitly-stated cause. The nine acceptable reasons for eviction include failure to pay rent, violation of terms of the lease, damage to the property, creating a nuisance, use of the property for illegal purpose and landlord recovery of the property for personal or family use.

Under the ordinance, landlords also would have to inform the city’s Office of Housing Stability of their intent to evict a tenant or decline to renew a lease within 48 hours of serving the notice to the tenant. The city would use this opportunity to mail information to the tenants about their rights in this situation. During last week’s hearing, Sheila Dillon, director of the Department of Neighborhood Development, and Lydia Edwards, deputy director for the Office of Housing Stability, said they feared that a significant number of tenants receiving eviction notices believe they are required to leave right away and are unaware of their ability to respond to the notice or the time they have to locate other lodging, should they choose not to contest or respond.

“The majority of evictions don’t go through courts,” because the majority of people do not know they have the ability to contests evictions, Edwards said.

Such notification from landlords also would give the city missing data to understand the shape and scope of displacement.

“[Currently,] we’re looking at 2015 data and at a set of evictions that we weren’t able to impact,” Dillon said. “Our hope is that if we’re hearing things as they’re happening we can get to households and say, ‘These are your rights, call us if you need help.’”

The ordinance does not stop a landlord from hiking rents between leases and evicting a tenant unable to afford the new rent. During the hearing, Edwards noted that 80 percent of eviction cases in 2015 were due to nonpayment of rent, according to analysis of housing court data and calls received by officials.

Lines drawn

Councilor Matt O’Malley — who represents Jamaica Plain, the Back of the Hill, West Roxbury and parts of Roslindale and Roxbury — came out in explicit support, stating that the ordinance provides important protections, a valuable public education element and the data collection needed for accountability, and lets the city work with good landlords. He added that would not have supported a rent control bill.

The strongest voice of opposition came from Councilor Bill Linehan — representing downtown, South Boston and the South End — who called the bill unnecessary.

“I will not be supporting —and want to say this publically — this petition for a special law or ‘just cause eviction,’” Lineahan stated. “There are ample laws in place. … I would be all for empowering the city’s Office of Housing Stability and to have greater communication and resources, and eventually build the relationship with the housing court so that there is information on time and ready, but this matter to me doesn’t seem worthwhile.”

Data collection and tenants’ rights

Many councilors, including Frank Baker, Andrea Campbell, Josh Zakim and Michelle Wu, praised the tenant notification aspect and data collection.

“I agree in theory with this in that there are two ways this is helping tenants,” Wu said, praising aspects of the bill for empowering residents by informing them of their rights and extending the city’s ability to work on displacement problems by providing data.

Many emphasized that the bill of rights should be explained clearly in layperson’s terms.

In response to a question from Councilor Ayanna Pressley, Dillon said currently the city does not have steps to respond to any bad-acting landlords revealed through the data collection but that having the information is the first step.

The question of rent

One spot of high concern was that the bill falls short of protecting tenants from receiving dramatic rent hikes once their lease expires.

Councilor Campbell noted that with no enforcement mechanism, it would be difficult for the city to prevent landlords from multiplying rents between leases and mass evicting a building’s tenants. However, she cautioned that she did not necessarily think there should be penalties to landlords who act this way.

Sal LaMattina also highlighted the lack of protection to tenants whose rents are raised once their lease expires, and Zakim commented similarly, noting that the measure fails to tackle a key driver of displacement.

“I’m concerned about the illusionary nature of some of the protection, if someone can just say, ‘Your rent was $1,800/last month, I’ll make $4,500 a month,’ and someone is having a hard time paying it and that’s a just cause for eviction,” Zakim said.

“That’s allowed,” Dillon admitted.

Even less dramatic rent increases are creating tangible burdens, Councilor Tito Jackson said.

“We’re finding $200 [more in rent] pushes someone out of their residency and the city of Boston,” Jackson said.

Meanwhile, Councilor O’Malley said he would have opposed any rent control measures, and Baker said rent control would undermine the financial survival of small middle-class landlords by limiting their rental incomes to an extent that made property ownership untenable.

“I remember rent control. … It used to be when you bought a property, a lot of times the rents wouldn’t even cover the mortgage,” Baker said. He added that he fears any aspect of this bill that could restrict responsible landlords from relying on their property investment for income, and said that even if the bill exempts landlords who own fewer than seven units, such a measure could be undone in the future.

“I’ve had calls from elderly landlords hamstrung by the people they took care of for years,” Baker said. “We’re going to totally strip their rights.”

Jackson said the situation in Boston is dire, with homeless children in Boston Public Schools numbering in the thousands, the middle class experiencing a squeeze out and many long-term residents and critical portions of the workforce being forced to leave.

“We need to do something, we need to do it urgently, or we wake up in 10 years and are an absolute different city of Boston,” Jackson said.

The right law?

Some councilors questioned whether the bill was the right method of extending the proposed measures.

Councilor Zakim suggested one route could be to provide a special class of protections for tenants who are long-term residents, disabled, elderly, low-income people, people with limited English language proficiency or other conditions that may make eviction or learning of their rights especially burdensome. He also asked if including a bill of rights in the language of lease documents and eviction notices might be another way to achieve the bill’s notification piece.

Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George said she was concerned that the eviction provision does not apply to those living in subsidized housing units, the site of most evictions.

“If our public subsidized housing is the largest evictor … that’s a huge disconnect from what the mission behind Jim Brooks is supposed to be about,” Essaibi-George said.

Edwards said, however, that Boston Housing Authority uses its own internal system to work with tenants in such situations and that many in subsidized units live in housing owned by nonprofits, who take on the mission of combatting displacement. The Jim Brooks Stabilization Act, meanwhile, Edwards said, fills in the gap by addressing housing owned by private landlords, who may not share such mission and priorities.

Councilor Mark Ciommo said the city needs to give special consideration to the needs of senior residents, who may not have sufficient supports or access to specialized senior housing. He also expressed doubt that the Office of Housing Stability has sufficient capacity to handle issuing tenant rights notices, although Dillon assured him that office and the larger Department of Neighborhood Development would be able to manage.

“I totally agree with being as aggressive as we can with data collection but I want to know what kind of bureaucracy we need to set up,” Ciommo said.

Jackson suggested providing an incentive to benefit landlords who choose to offer their units for less than fair market rent. Dillon said a piece of companion legislation filed at the State House proposes a state tax credit to landlords who offer below-market rent. She emphasized that the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act is one among a larger set of tools.