Persisting horror of rent control
The Bolognas finally won!
You mean, they didn’t go bankrupt?
No. They did go bankrupt. Believe it or not, that’s what Vinnie and Laura Bologna wanted. They are the owners of a lovely Victoriai home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they are the No. 1 Worst Victims of Cambridge’s now-historic rent control system. That sought-for bankruptcy wiped away the $100,000 debt Vinnie and Laura Bologna owed their tenants and their tenants’ lawyer — the result of the most monstrous miscarriage of justice in Cambridge’s 25-year rent control history.
If the tenants’ lawyer had blocked the bankruptcy, the Bolognas would have been forced to sell their home and become homeless.
The Bologna horror story began in 1986 when Vinnie, a Sicilian immigrant who got his first job at 14, bought the worst house on the block to fix up himself — the only way he could afford his own home. He and his new wife Laura lived in the small “back house,” and he rented the main “front house” to two doctors.
In a few months, the tenants stopped paying rent. Why? They claimed the house, originally a 9-unit rooming house, was still under rent control. Vinnie, thinking his newly renovated owner-occupied 2-family house was exempt from rent control, had rented it to the doctors at a market rent.
In the ensuing conflict, the Cambridge Rent Board took each and every opportunity to destroy this financially struggling, hard-working young family.
1. The Rent Board branded Vinnie Bologna a lying, scheming developer who knew the rules, and they set the rents at pre-renovation rates — for rooms that were on their way to abandonment. They ignored Vinnie’s $120,000 worth of improvements. Why? Because he hadn’t asked permission in advance. Those low, low rents meant Vinnie’s “overcharges” mounted up astronomically.
2. While Vinnie worked two jobs day and night, his tenants lived rent-free for four years, sublet rooms in the house at market rates, and pocketed every penny. The Rent Board refused to lift a finger against the tenants, neither evicting them for nonpayment nor prosecuting them for rent overcharges. Meanwhile, Vinnie and his family were forever barred from living in the house they worked so hard for because the Rent Board prohibited owners (but not tenants) from occupying more than one rooming house unit at a time.
3. The Rent Board could have let Vinnie off the hook. Vinnie was innocent of his rent control “crime” because the rooming house use of his property had been abandoned for two years and, under current zoning, lost its “grandfathered” status. In fact, 12 neighbors testified that the house had been vacant at least two years. The Cambridge zoning board agreed with the witnesses and prohibited a rooming house. But the Rent Board went to extraordinary, behind-the-scenes efforts to close this escape route for the Bolognas. They declared all Vinnie’s witnesses liars and pressured the zoning board to restore the rooming house status with a variance.
4. Trapped, the Bolognas suffered through four years of lost legal battles and no rent coming in from their tenants — when Lenore Schloming (now president of SPOA) started to investigate. How could the Rent Board throw out the testimony of 12 witnesses? Easy. After the hearing was closed, the “impartial” hearing examiner illegally snooped for evidence himself — a fishing expedition for anything — and found an eviction case. It looked like an eviction from the “front house” during the two years Vinnie and his witnesses said it was abandoned. Without giving Vinnie a chance to refute the new evidence (also illegal), the examiner based his decision on the eviction alone and threw out all the witness testimony. Then, what Lenore found was that the unit numbers had been changed! The eviction was from the “back house,” not the “front house.” Lenore found the critical piece of evidence that proved Vinnie had not lied.
5. Armed with this new evidence, Vinnie got his case reopened. The Rent Board agreed the house had been abandoned and let some (but not all) of the rooms in the front house be exempt from rent control. This meant Vinnie had not overcharged his tenants. But horror of horrors, the Board refused to make its ruling retroactive. It applied to the future only. It would have no effect at all on past overcharges, punitive damages or tenants’ legal fees that Vinnie owed. Innocent, but still punished. Now the Bolognas had no choice but bankruptcy court to wipe out those crushing debts.
In bankruptcy court, the tenants’ lawyer talked incoherently over a mountain of disorganized paperwork. The judge’s eyes rolled. The clerk’s eyes rolled. What worked at the Rent Board wasn’t working here. “I’m not going to try this case for you,” said the judge. Finally, Judge Kenner of U.S. Bankruptcy Court ruled in favor of the Bolognas and remarked: “A tremendous amount of money has been expended in this case at the Rent Control Board, the Superior Court, the Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court.” She paused and shook her head. “I think that’s very unfortunate.” She banged down the gavel, stood up and walked out.
Lenore’s discovery of the unit re-numbering was again critical. Any lying would have been called “fraud” and blocked the bankruptcy. Now the Bolognas are free of debt. They do not have to sell their house.
It’s 12 years since it all started, and the Bolognas have three daughters. “So beautiful and precious,” Lenore said at SPOA’s holiday party. “That’s what kept us going all these years,” Vinnie replied. “They were the one thing they couldn’t take away from us.”