Boston mayor pursues tenant protections with new bills

The high cost of housing in the Boston area makes affordability a perennial topic

Sheila Dillon (left), Boston's chief of housing and director of neighborhood development, led a Friday briefing at City Hall outlining a package of five bills aimed at addressing housing issues facing residents and landlords.[Photo: Antonio Caban/SHNS]

BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service) – Major Boston landlords would no longer be allowed to kick out tenants to renovate housing units and would need to notify the city about pending evictions under one of five legislative proposals backed by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

Another Walsh-backed bill, which will be sponsored by Everett Sen. Sal DiDomenico, would provide publicly funded attorneys to tenants around the state who are unable to afford a lawyer of their own in eviction proceedings. The cost of such representation could reach $30 million.

Named after housing activist Jim Brooks and intended to be sponsored by freshman Rep. Chynah Tyler, the legislation restricting “no-fault evictions” includes several exemptions, and would first go before the City Council before reaching the Legislature, according to Walsh aides, who briefed reporters on the legislative package Friday. The bill would not apply to sober homes, college housing or residences owned by a Massachusetts resident who owns no more than six residential rental units.

David Begelfer, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, said the proposal would damage private property rights and discourage development of rental housing.

“I think this is a well-intended bill but I don’t think that it’s well thought-out,” Begelfer told the News Service. He said, “That’s a serious change in the ground rules.”

The high cost of housing in the Boston area makes affordability measures a perennial topic of interest for policymakers.

The proposed legislation would permit evictions where a tenant failed to pay rent, violated a rental agreement, caused a nuisance, used the unit for illegal purposes, refused to extend or renew a lease, refused the landlord access for necessary repairs, and in the case of subtenants not approved by the landlord. It would also allow landlords to evict tenants to use the unit for the landlord’s family.

Boston Housing Chief Sheila Dillon said landlords generally like to sell buildings when they are empty and some will clear a unit to do a gut renovation and then raise the rent. The bill would also apply to former homeowners who were foreclosed upon.

Asked how landlords affected by the bill would be able to make renovations, a City Hall aide said they could make renovations without evicting a tenant by doing the work while the tenants live in the unit, or by providing them housing in another unit and then allowing them to move back in when the renovations are complete.

The legal counsel bill was viewed positively by Begelfer, who said giving tenants access to attorneys might improve dispute resolution because tenants without an attorney sometimes take illegal action on their own.

“We have no concerns about tenants having proper representation,” Begelfer said.

WATCH: Walsh Administration Outlines Housing Legislation

Sammy Nabulsi, assistant counsel for the city, said a prior study estimated tenants’ right to legal counsel would cost $26 million to $30 million, while the cost to provide shelter to those individuals is “upwards of $55-$56 million.”

The Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides legal defense in criminal cases, is regularly under-funded in the state budget, requiring additional appropriations to pay the bills.

Another Walsh-backed proposal to be sponsored by Rep. Kevin Honan, the longtime chair of the Housing Committee, and Winthrop Sen. Joseph Boncore would establish a $1,500 tax credit for landlords who provide unsubsidized units at below-market rent.

A bill to be sponsored by Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, the Housing Committee co-chair last session, and Rep. Daniel Cullinane, would give tenants the right of first refusal to purchase properties in foreclosure, and would allow tenants to assign that right to a non-profit, according to Lydia Edwards, who heads up Boston’s Office of Housing Stability.

Another bill specific to Boston would allow the city’s zoning code to require developers to include affordable housing in a development – a requirement that is now triggered by projects so large they need a zoning variance. A City Hall aide said the city is attempting to make its zoning code more predictable and transparent.

Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson on Thursday launched a mayoral campaign highlighting disparities between the wealthy and those struggling to live in the city.

Walsh in 2014 announced a goal of creating 53,000 units of housing in the city by 2030. According to City Hall, since the goal was announced, 12,001 housing units have been completed, and 7,263 are in construction, while many more are in the permitting stage.

Copyright 2016 State House News Service