Rent strikes: The tenant organizing tactic

Rent StrikeTenant advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) organized rent strikes against two elderly immigrant landlords (Rent Strike # 1) and an African immigrant landlord with a family of five (Rent Strike # 2).

All or many of the tenants of these landlords stopped paying rent and demanded that the landlords stop all rent increases and evictions before they would resume paying rent. Code violations were hugely exaggerated, and CLVU made claims on behalf of the tenants for huge damages claimed to result from the code violations. Their properties were deliberately devalued in these ways to discourage private buyers and force owners to sell — at a steep loss — to nonprofit “affordable housing” groups. The Egleston Square owners lost $400,000. The Mattapan/Dorchester owner with a family of five lost over $5 million. CLVU does not believe in private property. It wants all rental housing owned by the government or tax-funded nonprofit groups.

Rent Strike # 1: Egleston Square READ FULL STORY

Rent Strike # 1 CLICK HERE

Rent Strike # 2: Mattapan & Dorchester READ FULL STORY


By Skip Schloming, Acting Executive Director

A blog in the JP Gazette (5/11/18) by Sally Swenson and two Board members of City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU)  praised this Jamaica-Plain-based tenant advocacy group in a very misleading and untruthful portrait of the group’s “tenant organizing” at two specific addresses in Mattapan and Dorchester. I know, because I personally investigated the properties at these addresses and their owner and met some of the tenants at the height of the RENT STRIKES there in and around October 2016. I am a former licensed building contractor, and I am acting executive director of the Small Property Owners Association (SPOA).

Yes, rent strikes! Never mentioned in this blog or anywhere on CLVU’s website is that their prime tactic, what they call “organizing,” is rent strikes. A bunch or all of a landlord’s tenants stop paying rent all at once and demand concessions from the landlord, such as no evictions and no rent increases, before they will resume paying rent. For small landlords without reserve funds, a rent strike is devastating. They are forced to capitulate. CLVU never mentions rent strikes because they know that rent strikes would be unacceptable to the public and to legislators.

What about the landlord with striking tenants? They do not mention that he was an African immigrant with a family of five. They say “this guy was a cartoonishly bad landlord…back to his old antics.” But they give no evidence, no examples of his “badness” or “old antics.” Just a bald assertion of a “bad landlord” that we are all supposed to believeds as true.

They claim that the landlord “was continuing to collect rent, and folks were living in horrible conditions.” They do not explain the truth, that the tenants were NOT paying rent and the landlord was receiving Section-8 rent-subsidy payments from the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). What about alleged “horrible conditions”? These subsidy payments required every unit to be inspected and approved annually. I personally have a 6-inch-high stack of these inspection reports that the landlord gave me.

I went carefully through 76 of these inspection reports, dated between November 2010 and June 2015. Out of 76 reports, 46 or 61% of this landlord’s units were approved on first inspection with no code violations. Considerably less than half, then, had minor violations, such as (quoted from reports for different units): “replace drip pans on stove; re-caulk around bathtub; replace lock on window; electric outlets painted over – repair; faucet leaking at base; repair or replace frig (not holding temp); exterminate for mice; combo carbon monoxide/smoke detector beeping; etc.” A few reports had serious violations. Quoted: “no second means of egress, install; rear porch needs to be completely repaired.” In any event, all violations had to be promptly repaired by the upcoming re-inspection in order for subsidy payments to continue or resume. Subsequent reports show those apartments with violations has become code-perfect.

How do apartments that are deemed code-perfect once a year come to have “horrible conditions”? They don’t. Something else is going on. Here’s what it is. CLVU hired an inspector, one that CLVU, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and Greater Boston Legal Services have hired well over a hundred times. He is known to exaggerate code violations and even cite violations that do not exist. For example, for all units he inspects, he cites “faulty electrical wiring,” “loose windows,” and “poor water pressure.” Housing Court Judge Jeffrey Winik noted this aberration and excluded this inspector’s reports as evidence. Quote from Winik’s decision: “[This inspector] testified that he has had a long term contract…with [the tenant’s] attorneys (the Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain) and that [he] has performed over one hundred inspections at their request…. I am not satisfied that his opinions…are entitled to be afforded any significant weight….As a private consultant, he testifies only on behalf of tenants…..[He] testified to conditions (cross-metering, drafty windows, defective electrical wiring) that had never been identified by any of the ISD inspectors.”

Then this inspector does what no other inspector does: he assigns a dollar value to each code violation for the duration that the tenant occupied the unit with that violation. These dollar amounts were the inspector’s own off-the-top-of-his head ideas, not based on a reliable source. Here are exact amounts that this same inspector assigned at another CLVU-organized rent strike at an Egleston Square address, which I also investigated: $41,040 for one unit’s “cockroach infestation” (all units were cited for this same violation); $1,900 for “throwing out a tenant’s barbeque grill without proper notice”; $6,840 for a “cracked storm window”; $50,000 to each unit for “emotional distress damages” caused by living with the alleged conditions.

So a long-term tenant is owed almost $7,000 for a “cracked window”–?? It’s ridiculous! In a study of 8,091 eviction trials using public records, only in 0.4% – less than 1% – of cases was a tenant awarded damages exceeding the amount of their unpaid rent. In other words, in almost all eviction cases with damage claims, the landlords are owed money from the tenants, not the other way around.

No wonder that the tenants at the Dorchester addresses claimed “about $3 million…against the landlord” in “a lot of personal injury claims,” as stated in the blog. “Personal injury”? None of the violations I mention for the Dorchester addresses so much as scratched a tenant. Such monetary claims are routinely established only in court by a judge, not by an inspector.

A CLVU Board member states in the blog: “The $3 million in claims actually lowered the value of the units, making them not so desirable to investors…But if the buyer kept the building permanently affordable, the tenants agreed to drop the claims—lowering the price to something a nonprofit developer could afford!” (Exclamation point in the blog.)

Here, then, in their own words, is the strategy of CLVU—to deliberately devalue a targeted landlord’s property through rent strikes and trumped-up damage claims, using (and abusing) the tenants for CLVU’s own political goals, making fake damage claims on behalf of the tenants and then inducing the tenants to give up their large monetary claims (why would they do that?)—all in order to transfer the property from a private owner to a nonprofit owner, at considerable loss to the private owner. The Dorchester owner and his family lost over $5 million because he was forced to sell and pay capital gains taxes. He wanted to keep his property. The Egleston Square owners lost $400,000 from their retirement.

Is all this a crime? It sure seems like it. A legal dictionary definition: “Extortion is a crime in which one person forces another person to do something against his will, generally to give up money or other property, by threat of violence, property damage, damage to the person’s reputation, or extreme financial hardship.” Dear reader, you be the judge. In labor strikes, workers walk off their jobs and receive no further income. In rent strikes, tenants remain in their unit living rent-free. Past unpaid rent is never paid up.

The CLVU strategy also roped in “City people” to their goals. From the blog: “We connected them [the tenants] with people in the City who were interested in keeping these buildings affordable and in keeping 59 families from becoming homeless.” These City people were Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, Boston Housing Authority, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, cooperating with a highly partisan advocacy group to put a private owner out of business. They all did numerous inspections to tally up so many code violations that the owner was overwhelmed. They even ordered him to return the one-bedroom units into their original two-bedroom configuration because a permit had not been taken out years before the current owner bought the properties. Such a change would involve tearing out a kitchen and a bath and rearranging walls and doors on each floor in every building, a huge expense for a net return of less rental income. It was a discriminating, targeted order, when the usual practice is to “grandfather” preexisting conditions. The whole CLVU operation was a conscious, deliberate, and unlawful targeted attack against this owner, and they do it all the time.

In court at last (I was present for the final hearing), the landlord had one attorney while the tenants had three, who told the judge that the properties were in “squalid, deplorable, appalling” condition—with no evidence offered. They were lying. Besides all the inspection reports that the owner had showing no code violations in any unit after one or two inspections (the landlord’s attorney failed to give this evidence), the judge believed the tenants’ attorneys and ordered sale of the properties to a nonprofit housing group at a price far below market value.

I myself had inspected the properties over several visits. The trash area was immaculate. The exterior walkways and interior hallways were immaculate. One apartment had a patch of degraded plaster, less than a foot in diameter, next to a window and a fist-sized hole in the back wall of a closet. Those were the only violations I saw in that unit. The kitchen stove, cabinets, and countertops all looked relatively new. I took photographs to prove all of it. The tenants I talked to had no specific complaints.

These tenants were not all “families…very vulnerable people…one step away from homelessness,” as portrayed in the blog. They were almost all formerly homeless men, living one man per unit, all on rent subsidies requiring annual inspections. This black immigrant landlord was actually doing a public service, taking in tenants that no other private owner would and preventing them from becoming homeless again. These CLVU Board members are telling a highly distorted story. “We are so proud” of what happened at these addresses, said a CLVU Board member. What high morality governs this group? Very little, I suspect.

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