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Weakened Jim Brooks Act passes in Council

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Weakened Jim Brooks Act passes in Council
Mayor Martin Walsh signs the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act. (Photo: MAYOR’S OFFICE PHOTO: DON HARNEY)

Housing is a top concern of Boston voters as the mayoral race heads to its final weeks, and now, a long-awaited piece of legislation on eviction protection plays into both candidates’ arguments. When the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act hit the city council floor last week, councilors voted 10-3 to pass it. But by the accounts of many of its city council supporters, the measure was only a weak, if welcome, contribution to protecting vulnerable residents from displacement.

Mayor Martin Walsh filed the legislation in December and lists the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act among the components of his anti-displacement strategy. Mayoral challenger Tito Jackson took an opportunity during the city council meeting to upbraid Walsh for the slow process in realizing this legislation and what he alleges is a less-than laser-focus by the mayor on the issue of displacement.

“We live in city where we have huge income inequality, and our wealth gap is even larger than our income inequality. It is going to require courageous leadership to do something about this,” Jackson said. “This is one baby step,” he said of the legislation.

The rest of the city council, meanwhile, seems reluctant to give the appearance of siding with Jackson’s mayoral bid, and Councilor Michael Flaherty stepped in to say the legislation’s timeline was normal for a legislative process and not reflective of Walsh’s priorities.

One tool, more needed

Many of the ten councilors who voted to enact the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act said that while it is better to have the measure than not, it provides only a minor improvement to the lot of those Bostonians facing displacement, and that much more work must be done.

“What will this do to solve the problem?” asked Councilor Andrea Campbell, who voted to pass the act. “I was extremely devastated to learn this might do very little. … This, if anything, just requires us to send some information to our landlords.”

Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, chair of the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery, who also voted in favor, said, “This small step in the right direction will help us build stability in our neighborhoods.”

The impact of the act is significantly pared down from what housing activists originally proposed. Over the course of multiple drafts and compromises, the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act was stripped of several provisions intended to make it more difficult for landlords to force out responsible tenants in order to pursue higher rent or for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons.

When activists in 2015 proposed the legislation, then called the “Just Cause Eviction” bill, it contained provisions allowing tenants to request nonbinding third-party mediation with their landlord in cases where the landlord sought to hike rent by more than 5 percent. Another provision more recently scrapped would have required a landlord to provide an eligible reason for evicting a tenant — for instance, because the landlord wished to offer the unit to a family member or because the tenant had failed to pay rent or violated the terms of the lease. This restriction applied only to landlords with seven or more units who did not live in the property, and would not block any landlords from raising rents at the end of a lease term.

What passed was a piece of legislation requiring landlords or foreclosing owners to inform the city whenever they initiate the process to evict one of their tenants. Landlords and the city also would have to inform tenants of their basic housing rights and of available resources. Additionally, the landlord or owner must serve a written notice to quit or notice of lease expiration or nonrenewal at least 30 days before initiating processes against the tenant or former homeowner. An eviction that did not follow these regulations would be vacated.

Currently, the city does not collect this kind of eviction data, and, Councilor Ayanna Pressley noted, has been unable to secure such information from the Housing Court. The new information gathered under the Jim Brooks Act will help provide groundwork for creating solutions, she said.

“We cannot tackle a problem we do not have data for,” Pressley said, calling the act an important measure.

Speaking to the Banner following the hearing, Boston Department of Neighborhood Development Director and Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon said the measure allows the city to know which residents may need their support and to offer them assistance, such as finding a new unit or to urging the landlord to provide the tenant more time. Eviction is costly for management firms and landlords, giving the city leverage to find alternatives. The other piece of the solution, Dillon said, is full-force efforts to build more affordable housing in the city until supply meets demand, as well as to better connect people in need with resources that already exist.

The state Legislature will have to approve the legislation before it can be implemented. Councilors Josh Zakim and Frank Baker co-sponsored a backup ordinance that provides for eviction data collection that would go into effect even if the Legislature rejects the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act.

Councilor Jackson said that the 68 percent of Bostonians who are renters remain vulnerable. He said the real solution lies in city policies to require more affordable and middle-income housing creation from developers, especially those who use public land.

Voting against the Jim Brooks Act were Councilors Bill Linehan, Sal LaMattina and Tim McCarthy.

“I don’t think this truly addresses the matter,” Linehan said. “I never said I was going to support just cause eviction, because I felt there were ample laws and bureaucracies in place to address these issues.”

Councilors said they had had their work cut out for them in trying to balance financial needs of landlords with concerns of tenants facing push-out as Boston’s tide of development raises rents.

“It’s not everything the advocates want. It’s certainly not everything that real estate wants,” Councilor Baker said. “Maybe that’s legislation — no one’s happy.”