Second of two parts (Read Part 1)
Aiming to reimpose rent control citywide, Boston's mayor and City Council have passed not one, not two, but three measures that stomp on the rights of property owners.
One, the misnamed "just cause" bill, makes it all but impossible to evict a tenant who won't pay his rent, except when the rent is less than 30 percent of the tenant's income. A second bill (actually an incoherent rewrite of one passed in December but rejected in court) slaps controls on at least 15,000 rented condominiums. The third, called "expiring use," forces landlords to accept bargain-basement rents on apartments originally built with a federal subsidy -- even though the government gave its word that once the 20-year mortgage was paid off, the developers could raise the rates to market level.
There is much to be said about City Hall's latest assault on the people who supply housing for Boston tenants, but the most important observation is this:
Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40-O -- "The Rent Control Prohibition Act" -- flatly forbids what Boston's politicians are doing. "No city or town," the law commands, "may enact, maintain, or enforce rent control of any kind." What part of "no" can't City Hall understand?
The law does make an exception for rent control that is "entirely voluntary and uncoerced" -- so long as landlords are compensated for "the difference between the unit's fair-market rent and the ... rent-controlled rent, with such compensation coming from the municipality's general funds." City Council President James Kelly proposed just that: He suggested letting landlords deduct from their property tax the full cost of any rent reduction they passed on to their tenants.
But Mayor Menino and Kelly's colleagues weren't interested. (One honorable exception: Councilor Maureen Feeney of Dorchester.) Besieged by tenant groups demanding low rents at landlords' expense, the council spurned Kelly's proposal.
The condo-conversion and "expiring-use" measures come close to open theft. They make no pretense of doing anything other than extorting money from property owners and transferring it to tenants.
But the "just-cause" bill is truly pernicious. It would smuggle rent control into thousands of leases by setting the rent at no more than 30 percent of the tenant's income. No longer would rent be based on the market value of an apartment. Under "just cause," the market is irrelevant. If a tenant's income drops, his rent drops. If he decides not to work, his rent drops to nothing.
And that's not the worst of it.
Under "just cause," landlords -- incredibly -- would lose the right not to renew a lease when the term expires. It would be up to the tenant to decide whether the lease rolled over. His decision to stay would be binding on the owner -- unless the owner went to Housing Court and won an eviction case.
This the tenant mafia calls "fairness."
"The eviction fairness home-rule petition states that landlords should have a good reason ... before seeking to evict a tenant" says the Boston Tenant Coalition. "Under current law, a landlord can throw a tenant out for any reason, or for no reason at all."
Well. Not all landlords, it is true, are pussycats. Some have been known to emit, on occasion, a whiff of temper. But only the most masochistic imbecile of a landlord would make a tenant leave "for no reason at all." What a landlord must go through to get an eviction would be illegal if it were done to a dog.
"Suppose you have a four-family," a Mattapan landlord says, "and the guy on the top floor is a nightmare. All night long there's traffic, loud noise in the hall, stereo blasting. You know there's drug stuff going on just from seeing the people who go there -- pale skin, dilated pupils, jerky movements. You ask them why they're in the building at 4 a.m., and they curse you out. Plus, this guy rarely pays his rent on time and keeps the place so filthy, you can't get the roaches out.
"The basic tenant from hell, OK? And the other tenants are begging you to do something. So you say, 'Look, his lease is up in two months, bear with me; I'll get him out then.'
"Here's what happens. You have to take a day off to go to Housing Court. Hire a lawyer to handle the case. You tell the judge what's been going on, but he says unless you bring proof, forget about it. So now what do you do? Break into the apartment to find the drugs? They'll scream, 'Unlawful entry!' Ask the other tenants to testify? They'll be scared of getting harassed.
"So you end up spending months keeping a detailed log. You send the guy warning letters so you can build a paper trail. You ask the police to file reports. And after you waste all this time and energy 'proving' that the tenant is a problem, maybe the judge gives you permission to kick him out. Of your property."
What possible good can come from torturing property owners in this way? A city with no property rights is a city with no future. The message being sent by Menino and the City Council couldn't be louder or clearer: Developers, investors, would-be homeowners: Keep out!
How much more run-down and unpleasant can Boston become? If "just cause" and the other bills take effect, we'll all find out soon enough.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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