Renters struggle with investor landlords
Tenant unions help with battles over rent increases
When the Morton Village tenants in Mattapan found out their building was sold to a California investor, fears of displacement rose and they demanded immediate negotiations. After months of protests and a $4 million investment from the city, the Morton Village Tenant Association secured five-year leases and a plan for reasonable rent increases. These tenants had unmatched success compared to two other developments recently under new management. All three faced the challenge of out-of-state investors who were hard to reach and refused to negotiate as people were forced to leave their homes.
City Life/Vida Urbana is at the forefront of most of these tenant unions, who often organize in short order when they find out their building has been sold. Steve Meacham, organizing coordinator at the eviction-fighting organization, has led years of negotiations between tenants and investors.
“We’re certainly seeing a general trend of investors who don’t want to talk to tenants,” Meacham told the Banner.
In many of those cases, investors and the property managers they hire who are located in Boston have eventually given in to negotiations, and tenants, through City Life/Vida Urbana, have secured long-term leases. This was the case at 6 Humphries place in Dorchester in 2018, 22 Rexford Street in Mattapan in 2019, and several properties under Advanced Property Management in Hyde Park. Tenants are currently protesting a building-wide eviction at 18 Brent Street in Dorchester.
But at Fairlawn Apartments, Morton Village and Stony Brook Apartments, tenants are dealing with investors outside Boston, and as far off as California and Texas.
Sheila Gunn, a Morton Village resident, was planning for retirement when she found out her apartment complex was being sold. Fearing a rent hike, she helped organize the Morton Village Tenants Association.
“It’s happening all over the place, so it wasn’t an unfair and unfounded concern,” Gunn said.
She watched organizers protest at Fairlawn Apartments as their new investors, DSF Group, rebranded the site as “SoMa at the T” (Southern Mattapan at the T). SoMa at the T tenants, representing over 400 units, have demanded that rent increases stop at 2% per year, that poor conditions in the complex be fully addressed, and that the investors meet for negotiations. This is DSF Group’s only Boston property, and though it is based in Waltham, the firm has properties in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Virginia. According to City Life/Vida Urbana, some rents have been raised 20% and DSF Group has refused to negotiate.
Winn Companies, which now oversees DSF Group property, is scheduled to meet with City Life/Vida Urbana for the first time on Nov. 23. Trevor Samios, vice president of Connected Communities at Winn, said that before they entered into a management agreement with DSF, the previous managers had challenges meeting with resident organizers.
“We have a long history of successful community partnerships with residents and co-ops and affordable housing resident leadership and tenant organizations, generally,” Samios said.
Management now plans to stay all evictions that were filed, negotiate with tenants who have lost their jobs, and listen to their requests about rent.
“The city was trying to support a nonprofit to buy that development, to create permanently affordable housing, like what happened in Morton Village, but the selling corporation and the buying corporation were not interested,” Meacham said.
He calls the success at Morton Village a rarity, especially since the city stepped in and made all 207 of the units permanently affordable.
Sheila Dillon, chief of housing for the city of Boston and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development, says this is one of the few things the city can do in a private sale. They can help more if tenants are organized.
“It’s helpful for [the city], as we start negotiating with the potential owner, that we’re working closely [with] and listening closely to the existing residents,” Dillon said.
Over at Stony Brook Village in Hyde Park, tenants have been organizing since Lincoln Avenue Capital bought the complex in the summer of 2018. The management company is based in Los Angeles and owns 47 properties across 10 states. After the sale, several tenants said they experienced drastic changes in rent, and received little to no response from property managers about improvements on the buildings.
In February 2020, Lincoln Avenue Capital then sold Stony Brook Apartments to Pinnacle Management, a company based in Texas. Katie McCann, an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana who led the tenant group at Stony Brook, said the new owner has also refused negotiations.
“And now during the pandemic, the tenant association has been making requests for rent forgiveness for tenants who have lost income, as well as rent reduction for alternatives during the pandemic, in addition to trying to get management to negotiate,” McCann told the Banner.
Now that the statewide eviction moratorium has ended, tenants are relying on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national moratorium form to keep them from going to housing court.
When Stony Brook was sold the second time, tenants were notified after the fact. The apartments are also subsidized, a fact which McCann said has led people to believe that tenants are not at risk.
“It would take explaining the math of how the rents are calculated to show that a lot of tenants are paying way more than half their income, or three-quarters of their income toward rent. Because it’s not in proportion to people’s income,” McCann said.
City Life/Vida Urbana practices a method called the sword, which is protest, and the shield, which is legal rights. That kind of public pressure has garnered success, but McCann recognizes that out-of-state buyers are not as receptive.
When fighting investor Gregory McCarthy for long-term leases at 6 Humphries Place, tenants showed up to a public hearing for another one of his potential properties. They’ve also connected organizers at multiple properties owned by the same landlord.
“Even if they’re not facing the same issues, I think that those are some additional ways that we can put pressure on owners, which is obviously harder with companies that own property all over the country,” McCann said.
City Life/Vida Urbana organizers have spent the summer advocating at the State House for the Housing Stability Act, a bill that would provide protections for renters and landlords after the pandemic emergency is over. Mayor Martin Walsh also introduced an act as part of a larger economic package in January 2019, that would give tenants the right of first refusal when the owner of a building wants to sell — a contentious point among renters and landlords. Tenants would be notified their building’s owner is selling, would have the first chance to buy the building, or give their right over to an organization for purchase.
MassLandlords, a landlord trade association, objects to the legislation, which gives unprecedented power to tenants, because the group does not believe it prevents displacement and does not think it is just to landlords under federal law. Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords, says his group has introduced a version that focuses on notifying tenants that the building is being sold. The small “mom-and-pop” type of landlords he represents, he says, are more open to negotiation than some out-of-state corporate entities.
“There’s a real difference in the kind of landlords that operate in Massachusetts. The large corporate ones, especially the ones who don’t know their renters, tend to do the things that get or draw the ire of folks who work in renter advocacy,” Quattrochi said.
Though Dillon and the Department of Neighborhood Development don’t want to constrain the market, they do want tenant’s right of first refusal passed at the State House.
“We cannot insist that a current owner sell it to a particular buyer. We don’t have the legal authority. This would give the tenants legal authority,” Dillon said.
What property managers need to do in the meantime, Quattrochi says, is talk to their tenants first and negotiate the best scenario that will reduce displacement while upgrading the building to a state that the new investors will approve of.