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Beantown’s Housing Battle: Losing Rent-Control Battle, Boston Tenants Organize

Steven Wishnia Jan 27, 2005

p3 beantownBy Steven Wishnia

Boston’s City Council defeated a plan to rein in rent increases on Dec. 8, the second time it has rejected new rent restrictions since a statewide referendum abolished rent control in 1994. Yet tenant activists in the city have developed a creative set of strategies to cope, including collective bargaining with landlords.

The council voted eight to five against the Boston Community Stabilization Act, a measure initiated by the Boston Tenant Coalition, that would have allowed tenants to appeal excessive rent increases. As the council defeated a similar measure in 2002, and the 1994 law says local governments in Massachusetts can’t regulate rents without permission from the state legislature, the chances for restoring rent control in Boston are slim to anorexic.

“Despite the loss, there’s still momentum,” says Roxan McKinnon, assistant coordinator of the Boston Tenant Coalition, an alliance of 70 housing and community groups. “The response has been a lot more activity.” The most overwhelming reason the council rejected limiting rent increases, McKinnon says – in a city where rents have roughly doubled in the last decade – was that large landowners have the city in a “hostage situation.” Four developers threatened to pull out of the city if it restricted rents in any way, she explains, and councilmembers feared a return to the disinvestment of the 1970s.

“Politicians are unwilling to question what it means long term when the city is dependent on private investment,” says McKinnon. “The corporate investors are killing the city, and no one’s fighting it except the tenants.”

Two councilmembers who opposed the bill denied that campaign contributions from landlords had anything to do with their votes.

Foes of rent control argued that it was unnecessary because rents are no longer rising in Boston. That’s wrong, tenant organizers say; rents for luxury apartments have dropped slightly, but people in working- and middleclass neighborhoods are getting slammed with increases of up to $1,000 a month.

The pressure is strong on the front lines of gentrification in the neighborhoods a few subway stops south of downtown: Roxbury, Boston’s historically black community, where the teenage Malcolm X lived with his older sister; Dorchester, where wood “three-decker” houses once inhabited by Irish and Jews are now home to Haitian and Latino immigrants; and Jamaica Plain, known as “J.P.,” a multiracial, mixed-income area with a strong history of activism. Mark Pedulla, a tenant organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana in Jamaica Plain, rattles off a series of rent increases in buildings in Roxbury’s Egleston Square area but advertised by realtors as in Jamaica Plain: from $600 to $800, from $700 to $1,200, from $850 to $1,625. In one building, long-time tenants paying less than $500 for three-bedroom apartments were told to pay $1,800 or be evicted.

The irony, organizers note, is that many of the people being hit with these rent increases have been active in working to improve the neighborhood, by volunteering in schools or trying to get drug dealers off their block. If they succeed, property values rise, inviting gentrification, so “as a result of their activity, they get driven out,” says Steve Meacham, City Life/Vida Urbana’s coordinator of tenant organizing.

Yet tenants are fighting back by organizing tenant associations and forcing landlords to bargain collectively. “Tenants form unions and bargain collectively for the same reason that workers do,” says City Life/Vida Urbana’s website. “Ordinary people need to be organized when dealing with powerful interests.” The group has organized 35 to 55 buildings with a total of about 1,500 tenants in the last four years, according to Pedulla.

In the Grove Hall neighborhood, between Roxbury and Dorchester, tenants in a 27-unit building were able to bargain their landlord down from a $500 increase to $30 each year for five years. Two larger buildings nearby won agreements that they would be kept affordable for 99 years. Others have been sold to the tenants or to nonprofit groups. About half, says Pedulla, are still “in struggle.”

Tenant associations’ tactics range from putting political and community pressure on landlords to lawsuits, inspections and direct action. In one building where the new owner tried to triple rents, he agreed to negotiate after the tenants held two sit-ins at his office and picketed his other businesses. In the past two years, tenants in 16 buildings have refused to pay rent increases – a tactic that leaves them at less risk of eviction than going on a full rent strike would, says Pedulla.
“A lot of the collective-bargaining strategies revolve around bringing market decisions into a political and moral sphere,” says Steve Meacham. Real estate interests talk as if the market were as natural and beyond criticism as the weather, he continues, but “it’s a human-made institution. You have to regulate it. We think justifying displacement in the name of the market is immoral.”

Tenants are also trying to ally with other movements, with labor unions working for a living wage, with the anti-war movement and with the women’s movement. Housing is a women’s issue, McKinnon avers; the people hit the hardest by President Bush’s cuts in Section 8 housing subsidies are single mothers, and most of the tenant leaders she meets are women.

“We needed that [rent-control] bill to say that tenants have a right to fight for neighborhood revitalization without fearing displacement,” says Pedulla. “Now we have to go door by door, building by building, across the city, to organize tenant associations. There aren’t enough tenant organizers in the city to protect everyone.”