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Legislature passes Boston housing bills

Inclusive development, tenant rights bills await gov’s signature

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO
Legislature passes Boston housing bills
The Legislature approved three bills related to Boston’s zoning code. BANNER PHOTO

Part of activists’ push for fairer housing, the HOMES Act, along with updates to Boston’s zoning code and new tenant protections, were all sent to the governor’s desk last week. The bills move affordable housing forward and signal the state’s urgency around protecting tenants during the pandemic.

The HOMES Act, written by Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, gives tenants the right to go to court to have their eviction record sealed. Edwards’ original intent was to have all eviction records sealed after a few years, to protect tenants from being unfairly denied housing due to a past circumstance.

“If you have an eviction on your record, your chance of getting housing is extremely low. Then, the ripple effects of that lack of housing means lack of job opportunities,” Edwards told the Banner. “It’s a scarlet letter ‘E.’ They deserve a second chance.”

Those who have no-fault evictions and non-payment evictions would be able to file a new form with the courts, without notifying their landlord, to have their record permanently sealed. In future applications, they wouldn’t have to disclose a sealed record.

An addition to the law, introduced by the Chelsea Collaborative, was to have all children removed from eviction records. Going forward, minors would be prohibited from ever being listed as a defendant, which stops evictions from their childhood years from affecting them as they look for housing as an adult.

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute also worked with legislators on the HOMES Act, as well as the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, along with the Fenway CDC, the Greater Boston Community Land Trust and other organizations.

“It is critical to do everything we can to protect tenants during this pandemic and in the future from facing housing instability,” said Annette Duke, housing attorney at MLRI.

The opportunity-to-purchase legislation gives tenants a greater say in what happens when their building goes up for sale. According to the MLRI, the legislation is critical to address pandemic-related housing stress. The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act requires property owners to notify tenants when they intend to sell the property, and give them time to form a union, make the first offer or designate a non-profit to act on their behalf.

“A lot of tenants do not have that opportunity, because they don’t know that the building is for sale,” Edwards said.

Ann Jochnick, attorney at MLRI, explained the significance of preventing displacement during the COVID-19 emergency.

“The pandemic has been roiling the housing market. It’s expected to result in an enormous amount of foreclosure and speculative purchases and consequently, residential displacement,” she said. “This is all happening against a backdrop of an incredible lack of affordable housing.”

By putting tenants first in line to preserve the property, the bill is aimed at preventing speculators from profiting off the displacement of tenants. Small property owners are excluded from the bill’s purview, and there are no price restrictions or limits on the time frame so that owners are protected.

“The second pandemic-related reason is that keeping people in their homes right now is an enormous public health issue,” Jochnick said.

Edwards also introduced a home rule petition with Mayor Martin Walsh, asking the state for more power over zoning rules. The petition has passed in both houses. This update to the linkage rules will give Boston the power to change the rules more often. Linkage is the agreement that developers make, to pay the city a fee per square foot of commercial space.

“It means we can generate some much needed revenue for housing. It’s not just housing, it’s also jobs, because the money goes into the Housing Trust and the Jobs Trust,” Edwards said, noting that the trusts are currently underfunded.

The home rule petition also gives the city power to increase the percentage of affordable housing required when building residential space, instead of having to petition the state each time they want to make a change.