That’s no compromise

By Skip Schloming, Campaign Coordinator against Rent Control

A “compromise” proposal at the Boston City Council replaces Just Cause Eviction, the anti-landlord portion of the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act that would have required a “just cause” for any eviction. It seems dead at Boston City Council. It never garnered enough votes to win, for which we are very grateful.

Another portion of this same Act, however, is being offered as a “compromise.” It would require landlords to send in to the city’s new Office of Housing Stability copies of every eviction notice (broadly defined) and every rent increase notice sent to any tenant. Its sponsors are calling it “data collection.”

It sounds innocent, but it’s not!

What tenant advocacy groups want in this “data collection” is the name and address of every tenant in the city that is being evicted or having his/her rent increased. Every one of these notices will include this information. And nothing in the proposed ordinance prohibits this information from going directly into the hands of tenant advocacy groups.

With this information, these groups could target their organizing activity precisely to tenants facing dislocation or financial upsets in their lives.

Rent strikes!

Would these advocacy groups help tenants relocate, help them find new jobs, help them establish new relationships, or help them in any other way? No. They would only help tenants do one thing: rent strikes, where one or more of a landlord’s tenants stop paying rent for extended periods of time, demanding that the landlord stop the eviction(s) and/or stop the rent increase(s). Their organizing activity would give tenants many months of free rent, a legal obligation to pay all this unpaid rent (but it’s never paid), more time to move out, and whatever crude enjoyment comes from screwing their landlords.

When a lone individual does a “rent strike,” it’s no different than the “free rent trick.”

Rent strikes are devastating to landlords: prolonged loss of rent ($$$$$), attorney’s fees ($$$), and increased repair costs ($$$). Evicting three or four or seven tenants all at once is extremely daunting. Just to get their rental income stream restored, landlords would concede to no rent increases and no evictions – even when good management would justify them.

No guarantee of confidentiality

Even if a confidentiality provision is added to the ordinance, all the leaks in Washington D.C. tell us it’s impossible to enforce. And no doubt it would be unenforceable in the Office of Housing Stability, with personnel sympathetic to tenant advocacy groups. Addresses could be memorized and transmitted to advocates without evidence. Even a computer thumb drive could hold all the data and be passed on, or the city’s electronic files could be hacked.

Back door rent control!

As soon as landlords across the city learn that evictions and rent increases magnify their chances of being targeted for rent strikes, they will react accordingly. They will not send in their eviction or rent increase notices. But the risk of doing that is $300-a-day fines up to 30 days or $9,000.

Even if landlords do send in the required copies of eviction or rent increase notices, and even if advocacy groups can only organize rent strikes against a small minority of landlords, all the rest of Boston landlords would quickly know this danger exists – and stop evictions and all rent increases, or keep rent increases low. It’s rent control and eviction control by intimidation. It’s “back door” rent control! And it would spread fast across the city.

Illegal, unconstitutional reporting requirement

Fortunately, part or all of this “compromise” proposal is illegal. As Dorchester landlord attorney Stuart Schrier pointed out in the hearing on Just Cause Eviction, sending 14-day notices to anyone other than the debtor (the nonpaying tenant) is illegal under federal and state law as an unfair debt collection practice. It discloses private information. Thus, the city could not force a landlord to breach federal or state law by forcing compliance with a city ordinance demanding copies of notices to quit for nonpayment.

A further problem may also arise with requiring landlords to send in copies of rent increase notices as well as eviction notices. We believe they might be an invasion of privacy, prohibited by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” – unless a search warrant is issued. A search warrant, however, must identify a particular person, place, or thing, based on a reasonable claim of a specific criminal act. Are rent increase notices and eviction notices “papers”? Are they the private property of the landlord and tenant? Are they even a crime? It seems not.

Rent strikes are not legal

Unlike labor strikes in which workers walk off their jobs and suffer loss of income, tenants in a rent strike remain in their units, living rent-free. Striking tenants could not be evicted until all code violations are fixed (the rent withholding law, MGL Ch 238, sec 8A), and advocacy groups would coach tenants how to sustain code violations as long as possible (refuse entry for repairs, create new code violations, etc.). Meanwhile, landlords remain legally bound to maintain this housing in full, code-compliant operating condition – despite tenants obstructing repairs. It is theft. The tenants incur a legal obligation to pay all past-due “withheld” rent – but it is almost never paid, making it a violation of the rental agreement and of state law.

The city should not be promoting advocacy groups that use illegal tactics.

Documented rent strikes

Last year, SPOA documented in this newsletter two rent strikes by City Life/Vida Urbana, the prominent tenant advocacy group in Boston, which is almost certainly behind this proposed “compromise.” In one rent strike, two owners (elderly Hispanic immigrant brothers getting ready to retire) lost more than $300,000, or more than a quarter of the value of their rental property (March 2016 newsletter).

In another rent strike, yet more tragically, a landlord and his family of five lost well over $5 million (October 2016 newsletter). The owner was forced to sell his property to a non-profit housing development group at a deliberately and greatly reduced value. Worse yet, because of the forced sale, he was forced to pay about $4 million in capital gains taxes when he wanted to continue his small business for its income to his family.

A host of attorneys told the judge that the property was in “deplorable” and “shabby” condition, complete lies with no evidence to back them up. Skip Schloming investigated and took dozens of photos of hallways, unit interiors, and exteriors, none of which showed any signs of poor conditions (no litter and no code violations in hallways or outside the row house buildings, and no interior code violations in several apartments except two small holes in the back wall of a closet and next to a window frame).

No private property anymore

City Life/Vida Urbana does not believe in private property. They want all rental housing to be owned by the government or non-profit groups. Rent strikes like these have the goal of deliberately reducing the value of the properties as much as possible and getting them bought by non-profit housing development groups. City Life/Vida Urbana achieved that goal in the second case, for sure.

For example, many of the city’s tenant advocacy groups showed up at a hearing on changes in the State Sanitary Code, which defines what constitutes code violations. These groups pushed for a requirement that if a building gets condemned, the landlord is responsible for providing alternate housing for all the tenants and then allowing the tenants back in to their original apartments – no doubt at the same rent they paid previously. Such a requirement would sink many landlords, who would simply walk away and abandon their property, making its value plummet and ready to be snatched up by non-profits. Just what tenant advocates want.

A useless study

The proposed ordinance only requires an annual report to the Council on the frequency of evictions by “neighborhoods,” not by specific addresses. The city, however, already knows this information in general, and what good has it been? Even if the data would be useful in theory, the data collected by this ordinance would be faulty, unreliable data. Any social scientist would confirm this issue. Many landlords would not comply, for many reasons including being unaware of the requirement or fearing rent strikes. The data would be lopsided and unrepresentative. The ordinance would be another compliance debacle like the rental inspections.

Most of the data the city wants is available at Boston Housing Court, or a social scientist who specializes in housing issues could do a study at far less cost than paying for employees to deal with these notices that will come in for years into the future.