Rocketing Rents
Bean Bostonians

Rents are soaring. Eviction proceedings are on the rise. And landlord-tenant battles, uneasy under the best of circumstances, have turned increasingly bitter.

Welcome to Boston, the last big city that scrapped rent control laws and an example of what may be in store for 2 million tenants facing the threatened June 15 elimination of New York's rent protections.

Pushed by landlords, voters in the greater Boston area voted to deregulate rents for about 100,000 apartments during a 1994 referendum. Boston officials, landlords and tenants say New Yorkers can learn from the results.

But the lesson depends on who's doing the teaching. Tenants and Boston officials point to soaring rents and hundreds of residents forced out of their homes, while landlords say predictions of mass disruption proved groundless.

"We've seen rents go from $300 to $1,200," said Albert Lombardi, administrator of the Rental Housing Resource Center, a Boston mayoral agency. "Some [tenants] are faced with no choice, and it's kind of sad."

Rents in the greater Boston area jumped an average of 14% since deregulation, according to a survey by the Rental Housing Association, a Boston landlord group.

The survey shows tenants in an average apartment not subject to rent regulations paid monthly rents of $921 last fall, up from $881 in 1995 and $804 in 1994.

Neither Rental Housing Association nor Boston officials have charted rent hikes in newly deregulated units. Edwin Shanahan, managing director of the landlord group, conceded that in some cases "it's going to be a shocking percentage increase," but insisted the new rents are still short of market rates.

Tenants say units in once-stable buildings have turned over rapidly as landlords seek ever higher rents.

"Working class people have fewer and fewer options," said Susan Starr, a secretary at Northeastern University who has been fighting her landlord's attempts to evict her for two years.

Boston officials agree, saying they've spent $2 million extra on housing subsidies and long hours negotiating to avoid evictions.

Even so, Boston officials say hundreds of apartment dwellers have been forced to move. They predict the number of tenants priced out of their homes will eventually swell into the thousands.

"There have been a significant number of people who have been displaced," said Patricia Canavan, housing aide to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

"We don't think all of our crisis is over."

Landlords say the number of displacements is exaggerated. They point to new rehabilitations of long-neglected buildings and more than 2,500 new rental units planned or under construction.

"That's something we haven't seen in a quarter of a century," said Shanahan.

Maureen Murphy embodies the tenant side of the battle.

She faces the threat of losing the six-room railroad flat in the Brighton section, a working-class neighborhood of wood-frame houses, where she has lived for all her 60 years.

A month before her apartment was decontrolled in January, Murphy got a notice that her rent would jump from $274 to $600. Living on a monthly disability check of $595.89, she didn't know what to do.

"I can't pay it," said Murphy, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis.

"He's always wanted me out. He wants the big money and he knows he can get it."

Murphy is waiting to see if her landlord will accept a city offer of a federal housing subsidy. That would provide the extra income he's demanded, but would also require him to make repairs.

If the offer is rejected, Murphy says she and her two Siamese cats, Sasha and Moochie, will be homeless. "I have no place to go," she said.

Boston area property owners say they, too, are victims of the rent war. Landlord Lenore Schloming said she and her husband, Skip, have spent thousands of dollars battling well-off tenants who paid below-market rents in the couple's eight-unit Greek revival building in Cambridge.

"You're taking private citizens and having them subsidize people whether they need it or not," said Schloming, president of the Small Property Owners Association of Cambridge, a group that led the deregulation drive.

"What was galling is that they could pay more and they weren't and the housing suffered terribly."

Original Story Date: 042097
Original Story Section: City Central