Expiring restrictions fueling anxiety among affordable housing tenants

Carolyne Horton
In this June 26, 2017 photo, Carolyn Horton packs her belongings in her apartment that she has to move out of as her affordable housing subsidies expire, at the American Can Apartments in New Orleans. Says Horton, "My rent was $810, but they want to raise it to $1,100 or $1,200. Now I have to income-qualify for a new place and with just under $700 in Social Security, that's not easy." (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

BOSTON (SHNS) – As old bulwarks of affordable housing give way to market forces, low-income tenants implored lawmakers to preserve their homes, warning that without action they might be on the streets.

“I’m here today a nervous wreck,” Linda Mae Pittsley told the Housing Committee on Tuesday. “I don’t like doing this kind of stuff, but if I don’t fight for myself nobody will.”

A resident of Riverview Towers in Fall River, Pittsley said the building that has offered her an affordable home went up for sale and she fears she might need to buy a tent and live outdoors if her rent is hiked.

“We’re seniors. We have nowhere to go,” Pittsley told the Housing Committee. She said, “You people have the power to help us out.”

“I waited years to get where I am today,” said Donna St. Cyr who lives in the same Fall River development and said market-rate rents would eclipse her monthly income.

Tenants of buildings with expiring affordable housing restrictions urged lawmakers to back legislation filed by Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler (S 716) and Brookline Rep. Frank Smizik (H 3019) that would allow cities to keep rents artificially low on privately owned buildings like Riverview.

A Worcester Democrat, Chandler has emphasized housing as a key Senate priority this session. Oftentimes for advocates that means easing restrictions on residential development and encouraging the creation of new affordable housing.The residents who attended Tuesday’s committee hearing want lawmakers to preserve rent restrictions on housing that was built to be affordable decades ago.

Government encouraged developers to create housing that would remain affordable for a period of decades through a variety of programs, according to Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. Imposing rent restrictions on those properties once they are eligible to garner market prices would be a “quick Band-Aid” that ultimately puts tenants “in a worse position” because such properties fall into disrepair, Vasil said.

“It’s just been proven to not work in terms of upkeep,” Vasil told the News Service.

Chandler’s bill would allow cities to restrict rent on certain units with expiring affordability protections and restrict an owner’s right to sell. The local option bill would apply to developments of more than 10 units and to “certain subsidized units that were subject to Rent Control prior to the Rent Control Prohibition Act,” according to a bill summary.

In 1994, Massachusetts voters passed a ballot law generally prohibiting rent control on privately owned housing and nullifying existing rent controls, according to the secretary of state’s website. Only three communities – Boston, Cambridge and Brookline – had rent control ordinances when voters passed the ballot measure 51-49.

Around the state, more than 8,637 subsidized apartments have lost their affordability as owners converted to market rents, according to the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants, which said 4,200 families could be displaced as state mortgages in the state’s so-called 13A program expire over the next few years.

Created in the 1970s, the 13A program used a debt service subsidy to encourage the development of affordable housing, but as mortgages mature on those properties owners can move their units to full market rate, according to a post by the law firm Nixon Peabody.

“The program has faced challenges in the past, but none as significant as the current challenge of preserving this valuable portfolio in the face of expiring mortgages,” MassHousing reported on a webpage about 13A. Around the state, 43 developments are facing expiration of the affordability provision, and the estimated capital cost of preserving the entire portfolio at current rent standards is around $300 million, according to MassHousing.

A law passed in 2009 to address expiring affordability restrictions has been a success, according to Vasil, who said, “We’ve been able to find a lot of preservation buyers for properties.”

The law preserved more than 11,000 affordable units in the first five years, according to the Housing Committee.

Chandler’s bill would “undermine” that law, according to Vasil, who said the 2009 statute passed after “decades of intense debate and complex negotiation.”

“The law has been effective establishing notification provisions for tenants, a right of first refusal for [the Department of Housing and Community Development] or its designee to purchase publicly assisted housing, and modest tenant protections for projects with affordability restrictions that terminate while preserving the constitutional rights of owners,” Vasil wrote in testimony to the committee’s chairman, Rep. Kevin Honan and Sen. Joseph Boncore.