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City councilors hear testimony on City Realty

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
City councilors hear testimony on City Realty
City councilors Frank Baker and Tito Jackson listen to testimony during a hearing on City Realty Monday. (Banner photo)

Boston city councilors on Monday grilled the owners of a Brighton real estate company that has purchased some 200 distressed and foreclosed properties in the city over the past 10 years and whose tenants report steep rent increases, evictions and disrespectful treatment by the company.

Representatives of City Realty Group appeared at a hearing called by District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson to address issues of gentrification and the role of corporate landlords in rent escalation and tenant displacement.

“You have said you’re building up Roxbury, but you’re not building the type of Roxbury I want to see,” Jackson said to the two City Realty owners, Fred Starikov and Steve Whalen, who were accompanied by an attorney and a property manager. “You bought distressed units — and you have put a lot of residents in distress.”

Company representatives testified that City Realty owns about 600 units in 200 properties in Boston, mostly triple-decker homes. Many of them were purchased after foreclosures.

Chinatown Resident Association Chairman Henry Yee addresses the council. (Banner photo)

Jackson ordered the hearing after receiving complaints from residential and commercial tenants in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and other neighborhoods, and from the organizers helping tenants fight evictions. He had appeared with protesters at a September rally in support of small businesses in an Egleston Square building that City Realty recently purchased .

“It’s our job to fight for those who don’t have a voice,” Jackson said at the hearing. “We are here to hear the voices of folks who work hard every single day to pay rent. We care about this issue and we do not want poor folks to be displaced.”

Councilors Ayanna Pressley, Josh Zakim, Matt O’Malley and Frank Baker, who chaired the meeting, also engaged with the panelists. Councilors Michelle Wu, Charles Yancey and Michael Flaherty attended briefly and offered statements in support of the hearing and of neighborhood preservation in the face of gentrification.

The hearing started at 4 p.m. and went on into the evening, with testimony from two panels of City Realty tenants and a panel of tenant advocates and data experts, in addition to City Realty’s testimony. The scheduled panels were followed by an opportunity for individuals to step up to the microphone to speak their piece.

While some said they had never had a problem with City Realty as their landlord, the prevailing sentiment toward the company by residents and councilors was negative.

One by one, residential and commercial tenants spoke of problems they’ve faced with City Realty: rapidly escalating rent after the company purchased their buildings, pressure to move out, eviction notices, multiple court dates, company representatives showing a unit without advance notice, a bedbug infestation ignored. A condo owner of 20 years said City Realty bought the other two units in her building and then tried to impose a new $500 monthly condo association fee, which she fought down to $269 with the help of legal aid lawyers.

City Realty co-owner Whalen defended his 10-year-old company, saying it is filling an important need for affordable and mid-priced apartments and that it is refurbishing and improving the city’s housing stock by deleading hundreds of units, replacing oil heat with gas, installing smoke detectors where none had existed and other work.

In an e-mail before the hearing, Whalen told the Banner, “We have purchased hundreds of properties that were distressed and often vacant. For every property we have purchased, we have spent a great deal of time, money and effort to renovate the homes to make safer habitable conditions. Sometimes we have had to raise rents because we have invested a large amount of money to keep these homes safe.”

At the hearing, Whalen flatly denied City Realty has ever doubled a tenant’s rent. He informed the council that long-term leases have now been signed by all six businesses remaining at 3152-3160 Washington St., the site of the recent protest. (One of the original businesses has moved out.)

Whalen also said the company has been listening to the complaints and is making changes, such as hiring a community liaison and reviewing rent increases.

Pressley told Whalen she had no reason to believe his statement that the company wants to be a true community partner, dismissing his testimony as “smug and duplicitous.”

Baker strongly urged the company to make a better effort to engage with the communities in which they own property.

Unrelated to City Realty, several people decried the growing number of luxury buildings being built and planned in Chinatown and East Boston, threatening to change the fabric of those communities.

“It creates an imbalance. It’s unfair,” said Henry Yee, a 48-year resident of Chinatown. “We need to look at what they’re doing to the neighborhoods.”

Monday’s hearing was intended as a forum to air concerns and ask questions about corporate landlords and about gentrification and displacement in Boston. Another hearing will be scheduled to discuss solutions, Jackson said.