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Just Cause Eviction = unjust RENT FREEZE 

“Marriage with no divorce clause”

Who would be affected by Just Cause Eviction?

Many small property owners in Boston make a part-time or full-time living and feed their family with a small collection of rental units, from 7 up to 10 or 12 or even more units. These owners do their own management and repairs, without hired professionals whenever possible, thus keeping rents low. These owners would be subject to the new, anti-landlord Just Cause Eviction proposal, if passed. These small owners are not “corporate owners,” as the proponents claim, and they are quite numerous as owners, probably the largest group of owners (counting owners, not units) that would be under the control of the Just Cause Eviction proposal, if approved.

Owners of six or fewer units would be exempt from the proposal, even if one or more units are owned by a legal entity such as an LLC – but these owners are exempt only so long as the owner resides in Massachusetts. These latter owners of six and fewer units were originally included under the proposal’s Just Cause Eviction requirements, but recently removed. We clearly know what tenant advocates really want. They want these owners under control of their Just Cause Eviction proposal. If their proposal gets approved, these owners need to watch carefully, because as a tenant movement grows under the proposal, it will surely push for them to be controlled. The expansion of Just Cause Eviction, once adopted, would be almost inevitable! 

Another battle, bigger yet, within a year

With a strong outreach message to Boston property owners, SPOA stopped a Just Cause Eviction proposal in Boston this past March 2016. Now Just Cause Eviction is back, this time sponsored by Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, and from the standpoint of landlords, the new proposal is worse. If Just Cause Eviction wins in Boston, it could easily spread to the rest of the state!

As before, Just Cause Eviction would allow evictions only for a “just” cause, very strictly defined. Refusing to pay a rent increase is NOT one of the nine just causes allowed for eviction, but very tricky, unclear language does regulate rent increases. The proposal, in effect, imposes a RENT FREEZE or only allows very minimal rent increases.

As expected, the new Just Cause Eviction proposal has been drafted mostly by tenant advocacy groups like City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), extremist groups in Boston that do not believe in private property. They rob landlords. They do rent strikes. They demand rent control, as they have for many years. They peddle this new version of Just Cause Eviction as “moderate.” Having a “just cause for eviction” sounds so-o-o-o reasonable and fair. Do not be fooled. True, a city agency does not directly regulate rents. But instead, rent increases would depend on whether tenants agree to them or not, or on whether judges agree that specific rent increases are “fair” or “unfair.”

The proposal’s unclear language about rent increases

The proposal has very unclear language about rent increases, language that is bound to cause trouble between landlords and tenants just because it is so unclear. Check this out:  As a “just cause” for eviction, a tenant can be evicted if the tenant “has failed to pay the rent to which the landlord is entitled.” What does this vague, unclear language mean? Here is one likely interpretation: Under contract law, a contract is valid only if both parties agree to it. So if the tenant does not agree to a rent increase, the landlord is not “entitled” to it. In other words, tenants can say “no” to a rent increase and cannot be evicted. They stay in their apartment at the old rent – indefinitely. Lease renewal at the old rent is mandatory. That is how this tricky, unclear language in the proposal is likely to work. It’s marriage with no divorce clause.

The proposal’s only other “just cause” for eviction regarding rent increases is the very unclear provision that the tenant may be evicted if “the tenant has refused to execute a renewal of the rental agreement on such terms as are not inconsistent with or do not violate any provision of Chapter 93A of the General Laws.” What on earth is this!? Chapter 93A, the Massachusetts consumer protection law, says that “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are hereby declared unlawful.” To state it more simply, two lawyers, one an expert in landlord-tenant law, say that this language referring to Chapter 93A most likely means that rent increases will be scrutinized as to whether they are “fair” or “unfair.”

Thus, that decision about “fair” or “unfair” will ultimately be made by a judge in court. Since the proposal is (so far) aimed only at Boston landlords and tenants, it would make Boston Housing and Municipal Courts  become the new rent control boards. But since many judges are involved, what one judge calls “unfair” may be considered “fair” by another judge. Or a judge may decide that a rent increase is “fair” in one situation, but that judge may also decide that the same rent increase is “unfair” in another situation, such as a rent increase for a low-income or elderly or disabled household.

How on earth would a landlord be able to decide how much to raise the rent except by taking the chance that the tenant, with the aid of a free legal services lawyer, will take the landlord to court, a very costly route when the landlord has to hire an attorney. The cost of going to court would wipe out any moderate rent increase.  The impact of Just Cause Eviction on rent increases, therefore, would be very chilling. Landlords would either stop increasing rents altogether (except on new tenants) or timidly ask for only the smallest increases.

This new Just Cause Eviction proposal, like the previous one, would effectively impose a RENT FREEZE unless a tenant voluntarily agrees to a rent increase or a judge agrees that the rent increase is “fair.” Tenants would quickly learn that it would be best to stay put in their present apartment at the same old rent rather than move to a new apartment with a very high rent.

Here’s the really bad part

The penalties for demanding an “unfair” rent increase are very harsh: triple damages plus the tenant’s attorney’s fees (even if the tenant paid nothing for a free legal services attorney). To avoid that risk, no landlord will ask for anything more than minimal rent increases, and even a minimal rent increase can be refused by the tenant and challenged in court. Once again, it’s a RENT FREEZE or very close to a rent freeze.

Educating tenants on coercive tactics against landlords

Here’s the really, really bad part. Besides giving the tenant the right to refuse a rent increase, the proposal requires landlords to submit a copy of all eviction notices within two days to Boston’s new Office of Housing Stability, which will then tell the landlords’ tenants the rules for how to stop any eviction of a tenant for refusing to pay a rent increase or for any other reason.

This agency will also tell these tenants how to contact tenant advocacy groups like City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU). CLVU’s advice to tenants will be: Do a rent strike! Get all a landlord’s tenants to stop paying rent until the landlord agrees to stop all rent increases. Again, few landlords would take the risk of receiving no rent at all for many months.

Rent strikes are not illegal per se, but a landlord would have to evict each and every tenant for nonpayment of rent, which is considered a “just” cause to evict under the proposal for not paying the original contract rent – but not for not paying a rent increase. The prospect of fighting multiple evictions of all one’s tenants would scare almost any landlord into submission.

These harsh tenant tactics, including rent strikes, have already been used by CLVU against a few Boston landlords, devaluing their properties and forcing sale of their properties far below market value. With Just Cause Eviction, these tactics would be used against landlords all across Boston, creating constant landlord-tenant eviction battles.

No condo conversions or renovations are allowed, killing construction jobs

Also not allowed is an eviction to do a major renovation of an apartment, whether it is to sell the apartment as a condo or simply to upgrade a rental unit to modern standards, keeping it as a rental. Evicting a tenant for such purposes is not one of the nine “just causes” to evict. Thus, Boston’s rental housing will steadily deteriorate over time, falling behind the standards of housing in the rest of the state and in the whole country. Stopping condo conversions and renovations will also kill construction jobs in Boston, a matter that the trade unions will want to consider. That declining trend, moreover, will lower the assessed value of the “controlled” properties and push up the assessments and property taxes on the “non-controlled” properties – the single-family properties and the owner-occupied properties when the owner owns six or fewer units in Boston and lives in one of them.

Just Cause Eviction will expand into Rent Control broadly applied 

We know what Boston’s tenant advocacy groups want:  RENT CONTROL. They have tried at least four times in the past to get a rent control proposal passed in Boston, using names like “community stabilization,” “collective bargaining,” and now “just cause eviction.” They all come down to one thing: RENT CONTROL. Advocates have tried to make Just Cause Eviction look “moderate.” As we have indicated above, it is by no means moderate and it will indirectly control rents. If passed, Just Cause Eviction, with the city’s help, will rally tenants into contact with tenant advocacy groups and rally them to take action against their landlords.

Finally, when tenant support has grown, advocates will push the Boston City Council to vote  rent control back in. And then this rent control system will cover all rental housing except owner-occupied two- and three-family properties. That’s how rent control operated before 1994 when it was outlawed in a statewide referendum launched and sponsored by us, the Small Property Owners Association. That’s what tenant advocates want back.

Does Boston really need rent control?

Mayor Walsh’s own report said that 19% of the city’s rental units have subsidized rents, the highest portion of subsidized housing in any city in the U.S. That’s 52,000 units in which 126,000 lower-income Bostonians live. Add in the elderly subsidized units and the total comes to 22% of Boston rental units are subsidized. Moreover, Boston voters approved the Community Preservation Act, which will deliver $20 million for subsidized housing. And the city just announced that $30 million has been received to revitalize Whittier Street housing. How much is enough? And Mayor Walsh wants many thousands more low-rent units to be built by 2030.

We defeated Just Cause Eviction last year when thousands of property owners called or emailed their City Councilors and asked them to vote NO. If you and other owners join us, we will do it again!

To read the actual proposal, see the next post on this page.