New Article: Boston Suffers in The Year of the Landlord

11 Jun

Boston Suffers in The Year of the Landlord

From the Cradle of Liberty News Issue 2 – June 2013 –

By Jake Carman

This spring, rents skyrocketed across the greater Boston area, forcing tenants to move further from their jobs, communities, schools, and families. Tough competition for dwindling more-affordable housing contributed to the high prices in a city second only to San Francisco for the lowest rate of apartment vacancies. Meanwhile, many landlords sold their holdings to developers to be turned into more-expensive—and thus profitable—condos, further depleting living units for working class people. Landlords have capitalized on a shortage of available properties, which are thus in high demand, to rake in profit at the expense of tenants. These changes hurry along the process of gentrification, which redevelops working class neighborhoods for the use of wealthier residents.

Property Neglected By Landlord. Photo By Jake Carman

CBS reports 8.6 percent rent hikes, presumably for two bedroom apartments “to an average of $1,945 in Greater Boston, compared with the national average of $1,066.” A report cited by WBUR states “the average cost per bedroom in 2013 is $1,314. In 2011, the average cost per bedroom was $1,141.”  Cambridge rents increased 11 percent. Even as far as Revere, on the northern reaches of the greater Boston area, “there are nearly no rental units on the market, and any that are on the market are very high priced,” according to the Revere Journal.

“It’s definitely the year of the landlord,” Keith Harrington, co-owner of Boston-based property manager Hillway Realty Group, told CBS. He’s “seen rent hikes of 7 to10 percent since January.”

Meanwhile, a recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that a worker, earning minimum wage, would have to work 110 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment. This is based on a state-wide average, in which Boston represents the high end. Even in a household with two earners, they would each need more than one full-time job.

The shortage itself may be caused by the influx of wealthy students and young urban professionals into Boston in recent years. While this certainly is not a new process, the wealthy have now packed the central neighborhoods of Boston so tightly that the remaining condos are coveted and prices are skyrocketing. According to the Globe, “there were only 291 downtown condo units for sale in March compared with 693 in March 2012,” and the prices were up over 7%. Developers have turned to the lower property costs of outlying and working class neighborhoods and towns to build new condos and other high-end housing.

This process aids gentrification in two ways: it turns more affordable properties into condos and other housing for the wealthy and reduces the number of homes available to working people. The spending ability of the new, richer neighbors allows area landlords to raise rents, and business owners to charge more for staple products and services. Gentrification transforms low-income areas, driving up rents and the cost of living, forcing working people to relocate. Central Square in Cambridge, for example, one of that city’s few remaining working class neighborhoods, “saw the biggest increase in rents at 20.6 percent to $2,892,” according to the Globe.

I experienced the problem firsthand in May, when a new landlord bought the house I am living in with my wife and six-month-old daughter and asked us to break the lease and move out. The buyer is gutting the house to turn it into condos.

The Cradle of Liberty spoke to many Boston-area residents who face rent hikes this year. The tenants’ names have been changed to protect them from any retaliation from their landlords.

Ann Marie, a 49-year-old Brazilian immigrant who has lived in the United States for decades. Working full time in a grocery store and part time in a restaurant, she moved in to a two-bedroom apartment in East Somerville in February of 2011. Her family paid $1300, on a month-to-month basis, to a single-owner landlord for an old, neglected house in need of repair, until a new landlord bought the property in March. The new owner, according to Ann Marie, “sent a rude letter” in which he tried to intimidate the Portuguese-speaking family. Marie said he “gave us one month to move out. I got so stressed, because I was worried about my family. My father and mother are old and stressed too. We found a new place fast, thank God.” They moved on April 5th in to another two-bedroom apartment in Somerville, for $200 more a month, and had to pay the full broker’s fee on top of two months of rent. While their old house sits empty, with no signs of construction two months later, Ann Marie and her family are happy with the new place.
Gillian C., a communications director who lives in Watertown, has been renting a two-bedroom apartment with her husband since 2007, “in an apartment complex near Watertown Square, owned and managed by the Hamilton Company, one of the largest rental property firms in the state. I believe the rent was $1425 when we moved in.” The rent went up every year, Gillian told Cradle of Liberty, but only by $25 or $50. “Our lease is up September 1st, but we received a letter under our door in January, notification that the rent would be increasing by $150 to $1725. The letter asked us to indicate if we plan to renew or are leaving. It is a bit odd to get a lease renewal so far in advance of the lease expiration but this is how they’ve always done it since we moved in… But it’s obvious that they are trying to lock people in or scare them into signing.” The rent increase has encouraged Gillian and her husband to attempt to buy a house, but with home prices climbing dramatically and in short supply, they have had no luck.
Gillian’s nephew, Joe M., a drum instructor and caterer, who rents another apartment managed by the Hamilton Company with his girlfriend on the other side of Watertown Square, has also received a rent increase notification. Joe moved in July 1st, 2012, and is paying $1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment. This past winter, the Hamilton Company informed them of a $100 rent hike in July. Joe and his girlfriend are currently trying to find a one-bedroom apartment, “because two bedrooms are now out of our price range.” They have already been searching the greater Boston area for two months, but, like everyone else, are having a hard time.

Mary, who lives in a cooperative house in Allston, told the Cradle of Liberty that her landlord planned to raise the rent of their house too. As the tenant liaison between the cooperative and the landlord, Mary undertook negotiations with the landlord. “Last year, our landlord proposed a $200 per floor rent increase, which we felt was unfair.  We haggled over the rent increase, then finally settled on a $100 per floor increase, with a two year lease.  So no rent increase this year.”

Others like Mary and her housemates are resisting what they see as landlords’ onslaught on tenants. Renters in Malden and Medford have come together to resist rent increases at one small and three large apartments bought out by City Realty, which plans to raise rents across the board. Medford/Malden Tenants United acts like a union, allowing tenants to exert their collective power through protest and negotiations. They, however, represent a very small percentage of tenants, most of whom have no
organization and little knowledge of their rights as tenants.

Gillian continues, “I’ve been renting in the Watertown and Newton areas for the last 15 years and the rents have increased quite a bit. My first apartment was in a similar complex to this one, I lived with a roommate in a two-bedroom and the rent was $950. Total. I think I paid $450 since I had the smaller bedroom. The figure seems so laughable now. It’s not just in Watertown. Rents are going up all over the state. And we have no choice.”
A Transforming Watertown Neighborhood. Photo By Jake Carman
Work Cited:
High Demand Sends Greater Boston Apartment Rents Soaring
By Brendan Lynch, Special to the Boston Business Journal
May 29, 2012 7:36 AM

Boston condo market strong in 1st quarter
Downtown prices hit record median value of $537,000
By Jenifer B. McKim, Globe Staff, May 01, 2013

What The Cost Of Renting An Apartment In Boston Looks Like
By Nate Goldman January 30, 2013, WBUR

Revere Market Heating Up Again
May 9, 2013. By Seth Daniel. Revere Journal

Hours at Minimum Wage Needed to Afford Rent Map
National Low Income Housing Coalition

Tenants protest rent hikes
But new owners cite below-market rates

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