Why it is now especially important that tenants know their rights

There is a serious Housing Crisis in Boston and in other places of Massachusetts! Since 1994, when Massachusetts voted to end Rent Control (after extensive publicity and mis-education paid for by the Real Estate Industry), rent and sale prices have now skyrocketed out of control. In these past 6 years, Boston has lost more than 80,000 units of affordability-regulated housing. The shelters are full and the waiting lists for subsidized housing are years long.

Some Facts and Figures

  • In 1999, the average rent for an apartment in the Boston area was $1,500 a month, an increase of 77% from what it was in 1991, at $875 a month.
  • The average rent for an apartment in Jamaica Plain alone rose 64% in just 5 years (’94 to ’99).
  • In just one year, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Roxbury jumped by over 30%, from $838 in ‘98 to $1,100 in ‘99.
  • To pay the average rent for an apartment in Boston, the average Boston renter would have to pay 62% percent of his/her income for rent.
  • And a minimum-wage worker would have to work 199 hours a week to afford to pay the average Boston rent.

We believe this is outrageous!

Some see this crisis as “an economic boom”, a time of immense profit — a time when it is acceptable to charge excessive rent, to sell a home at much more than its worth, and to make enormous realty commissions. But this profit comes at great cost to others. Not only has homeownership been placed out of reach for many families, but also thousands of low- and moderate-income families have been displaced from their homes and neighborhoods. Some have had to move far away from the city, and others have been forced to live in shelters or on the streets. Many families have been forced to “double-up” in the apartments of their friends in order to avoid having to live on the street. And these overcrowded conditions have resulted in widespread (and unnecessary) health problems.

It seems that many people have gotten carried away with this excessive profit making, and somehow have been able to ignore the suffering that it is causing. They have lost track of the notion that the primary purpose of housing is to provide shelter to people, a basic human need and a basic human right. Instead they have allowed themselves to see housing as just another way to make quick profit. And in an effort to clear their consciences, they have transferred the blame to “the market” for the effects it has had on the “less-fortunate.”

While this “booming housing market” has allowed some families to purchase a second home in a vacation resort, it has forced other families out of their only home and onto the streets. There must be a balance between the drive for real-estate profit and the needs of ordinary people for affordable homes. And there must be full accountability on the part of landlords, realtors and developers — those who own homes and have the power to make their own choices — no longer can they blame “the market” for their own actions.

Even though Massachusetts no longer has Rent Control, Massachusetts tenants still have rights. Too many of the families and individuals who have been displaced during the crisis could have fought their eviction, and won, if they knew their rights. Others, whose rent was arbitrarily increased, could have organized with other tenants in their building in the same situation, and together used “collective bargaining” to negotiate with their landlord. Had they known their rights, they would have at least been able to remain in their apartment at the original rent for enough time to find another affordable and appropriate apartment. Don’t be bullied-for-profit! Learn your rights and exercise them!

But, tenants need to organize in order to enforce these rights. Through the years, City Life/Vida Urbana has worked with thousands of tenants, who, through organizing, have accomplished the following:

· Negotiated with their landlords to lower and maintain the rent at a reasonable price.
· Gotten their landlords to make all the necessary repairs.
· Fought unjust evictions and won.
· Gotten their apartments deleaded.
· Negotiated with negligent landlords to turn their buildings over to the tenants (for cooperative ownership) or to non-profit organizations, to benefit all involved.
· and more…

When you make a choice to resist an unjust eviction, to refuse an arbitrary rent-increase, or to fight for safer and healthier conditions in your home…

When you choose to work together with other tenants in your building, in your neighborhood, or in your community to support them (or each other) against an unjust action by a landlord or developer…

When you choose to stand alongside a community group or a tenant union and speak about your situation in a community meeting or in front of your elected representatives…

…You are saying that the basic human right of all people to a safe and affordable home needs to be more openly recognized and better protected. You are stating that the right of people to make excess profit should not be more important than the right of people to have shelter. You are fighting so that your children won’t have to fight so hard in the future for their right to have an affordable and secure place to live, and from where to conduct their lives.

Just like with any other civil right, we had to fight for tenant protection laws — they weren’t just given to us. Over the past 30 years, residents and activists in Massachusetts (and especially in Boston) have organized, fought for, and won considerable protections. The loss of Rent Control and other critical tenant protections in 1994 helped push Boston into a severe housing crisis. Now we must fight to win back laws that protect us from unfair evictions and high rent increases. We also need to work to bring back the 80,000 units of affordable housing that we have lost since 1994, and to preserve their affordability.

When you make the choice to exercise the rights you have, you are supporting the call to make it law that you shouldn’t have to fight so hard to have your rights enforced. You are also sending out a message to landlords that tenants will no longer tolerate being exploited for profit, and you are acting as an example to other tenants to fight for their rights.

We hope that this booklet will help you become more familiar with some of the rights and resources that you have as a tenant in Massachusetts. But it should only be used as a reference; we strongly encourage you NOT to rely on this booklet alone when fighting for your rights. Get help! There are tenant advocacy organizations, legal service centers, and community groups in many neighborhoods that are familiar with helping tenants fight for their rights. They can help you (usually free of charge). The laws are often very ambiguous and court can be very intimidating, but groups like City Life know the laws and have experience in these sort of processes. Don’t Act Alone. (Please, refer to the Tenants’ Resource List in the back of this manual for a listing of several local tenants’ advocacy organizations.)

And remember that it helps enormously to work together with other tenants in your building or neighborhood who are in the same situation; there is power in numbers. Your best chance for success in fighting for your housing rights lies in coming together to support each other and to improve conditions for everyone. Your landlord stands a good chance if you’re isolated. Don’t take it on alone!