Councillors hear arguments on ‘just cause’ ordinance

The discussion over Boston’s housing issues came to a head at a City Council hearing on Monday, as housing advocates, residents, landlords, and representatives from Greater Boston’s real estate industry sparred over a proposed ordinance that would require landlords to have a “just cause” to evict tenants.

At the hearing, many supporters of the ordinance held neon signs calling for “just cause now,” and their opponents wore stickers marking them as “owners.” According to Lisa Owens Pinto, executive director of the housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, the ordinance proposal is a reaction to building clear-outs and resident displacement, which she said are on the rise as real estate development moves into neighborhoods like East Boston, Dorchester, and Chinatown.

“The city has spoken once again — these building clear-outs have real effects,” Owens Pinto told the council Monday night.

The ordinance push has been spearheaded by Boston’s Right 2 Remain Coalition, a partnership of advocacy groups like City Life and neighborhood and labor union groups. Maria Christina Blanco, a community organizer at City Life, said the ordinance would have three main functions: prevent banks from evicting tenants in foreclosed homes; stop “building flipping,” a process by which a landlord will buy a building, clear out its occupants and flip it for profit; and collect much-needed data by requiring landlords to inform the city when they evict a tenant and why, something the city does not currently track.
Informing the city would also allow housing advocates to provide legal information and resources to those displaced by eviction, Blanco said. The ordinance would not apply to small landlords, defined as those who live in their building and manage fewer than five units.

“There are plenty of strategies you can use to address housing problems, but you really can’t do it without addressing displacement. This ordinance targets the bigger forces that are the drivers of displacement,” she said.

Representatives from the real estate industry argued before the council that there are already enough legal protections in place for Boston’s renters, and that a new ordinance might create an unwelcoming environment for housing developers. Gilbert Winn of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board said that while he agrees displacement is troubling, there needs to be a coalition of public and private groups to put forth a solution.

“We’re not treating our landlords fairly,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of confusion about this ordinance and that’s because it keeps changing.”

Indeed, this wasn’t the first time the council heard about a proposed just cause eviction law. Last year, a proposal was presented that would have blocked landlords from increasing rent 5 percent or more without first going through mediation with their tenants. That suggestion failed to gain steam, but this time, Owens Pinto said, she hopes the revised proposal will draw support from both sides. “We’ve been trying desperately to find something that works for the majority,” she said.

A draft of the proposed ordinance will be sent to the City Council this week, she said. The ordinance would need approval from the council and the mayor as well as an okay on a home rule petition from the Legislature to go into effect.

Antonio Ennis, a Dorchester resident and small landlord who rents two units in his building, attended Monday’s hearing in support of the proposal. While the ordinance wouldn’t affect him personally, he sees it as a simple solution to a problem in his neighborhood. “I’m basically here to make it clear that this ordinance is not as bad as it seems,” Ennis said. “If we want to evict a tenant, we just have to alert the city.”

For him, the argument comes down to money, and how the city can
support development while protecting its most vulnerable residents. “In the US, we have the right to make a profit,” he said. “But how much is too much when you’re causing homelessness and displacement?”