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City advances rent protection law

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
City advances rent protection law
Office of Housign Stability Director Lydia Edwards, press secretary Nicole Caravella and Housing Chief Sheila Dillon.

Last year, affordable housing advocates led the charge to establish an anti-displacement law in Boston aimed at curtailing both evictions and the large rent increases that precede them, collecting signatures and pressing city councilors to advance a so-called ‘just cause eviction’ ordinance.

Now the administration of Mayor Martin Walsh is leading the charge, with plans to move a new version of the bill through the city council and the Legislature.

The city’s Jim Brooks Community Stabilization Act, which officials filed Monday, would place restrictions on the rights that owners of large properties have to evict tenants. It would require that eviction notices be filed with the city’s Office of Housing Stability within two days of when they’re served to tenants.

City officials say the notification requirement would better enable them to inform tenants facing eviction of their rights, refer them to advocacy groups and help them obtain resources.

Unlike the ordinance advanced last year by the Right to the City Coalition, the city’s bill would not require non-binding mediation for large rent increases. But Boston Housing Chief Sheila Dillon said the ordinance would be part of a larger strategy to help protect Boston renters from displacement.

“We see this as a piece of the mayor’s anti-displacement agenda,” she said in a meeting with reporters Friday. “It’s not lost on us that even as we build a lot of new housing, a lot of new affordable housing, that people continue to be displaced.”

The ordinance would limit property owners’ right to evict unless tenants fail to pay rent, violate the terms of their lease, refuse to renew their lease, or damage or sublet the property. Landlords also would be allowed to evict tenants in order to take possession of the unit for their own use or for that of immediate family members.

The ordinance would not apply to owner-occupied buildings and buildings with six or fewer units, so a large portion of the city’s rental housing stock would remain exempt. Owners of large, multi-unit dwellings could still increase rents to clear out tenants in advance of condo conversions, but would be required to report any evictions to the city.

Dillon said the data the city obtains from evictions would enable the Office of Housing Stability to better respond to the needs of displaced tenants.

“What the Office of Housing Stability really wants to do is look at that data, figure out where evictions are happening, and then we’ll beef up our interventions and look at who’s evicting and have some frank conversations with those owners as well,” she said.

Anti-displacement activists expressed measured optimism about the Walsh administration’s rental protection ordinance.

Boston Tenant Coalition Executive Director Kathy Brown said getting information to tenants facing eviction is an important step.

“It’s great that the city is taking on displacement in a comprehensive way,” she said.

The collection of data and dissemination of information to tenants are important steps, she added.

Lydia Edwards, director of the city’s new Office of Housing Stability, said the notifications will enable the city to intervene early on.

“One of the biggest things we’ve learned in the short three months of the Office of Neighborhood Stability is about being as far upstream as possible,” Edwards said. “When we enter into any conflict between a landlord and a tenant, the further upstream we are in being able to talk with both sides, the better able we are to come up with a resolution that both sides can live with.

“Sometimes that [resolution] is that the rent is going to go up, but it’s going up over a longer term that the person can sustain. Sometimes it is that the person is going to leave, but they leave on better terms and maybe with help with first last and security for another place.”

Edwards’ office is currently working on ways to provide low-cost mediation services for landlords and tenants and will soon launch a website that has a comprehensive list of all subsidized and deed-restricted apartment buildings in the city.

Edwards said the office has been busy from its inception, and will likely become more so as tenants undergoing eviction are informed of its services.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of people coming in to deal with all sorts of issues — housing search, if they’ve been a victim of a fire, looking for ways they can talk to their landlord or just in general trying to find out about their rights,” she said.

Dillon said that city councilors with whom she has spoken are supportive of the proposed ordinance, but that she expects a mixed reception from large property owners.

“We are aware that not everyone in the real estate world is going to support this,” she said. “However, we feel like we really do need to start a conversation on this issue. The real estate community is going to have a lot to say. We hope that the administration can help broker those conversations and come up with a bill that would pass at the state.”

Chinese Progressive Association co-Chairwoman Lydia Lowe, a member of the Right to the City Coalition, said the legislation is a positive step, but much more needs to be done.

“It gives people a fighting chance,” she said. “Is that enough to keep people in their homes? No. What we need is rent control, taking housing out of the private market and more community control of public land.”