Sky-high Boston rents prompt tenant complaints—& landlords fight back

Holly Dolezalak
Holly Dolezalak | 5 min. read
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Published on March 30, 2015

Supply and demand are at each other’s throats in the Boston rental market. It’s not quite as bad as in Milton, Mass., where a departing tenant wired the home he vacated to explode. But like other densely populated cities whose rental markets have tightened in the wake of the Great Recession, Boston is in an affordable housing pickle.

Although media coverage of the tension between landlords and tenants has historically been in favor of tenants, that tide may be turning.

Rent Jungle, which tracks rental prices, says that rents for one-bedroom apartments within 10 miles of Boston average $2,403 per month, while two-bedrooms go for $2,519. When real estate firms like Zillow, Apartment Guide, and Trulia rate the most expensive rental markets in the nation, Boston is usually in the top 10. And with the number of foreclosure initiations rising — Boston saw nearly twice the foreclosure petitions in January 2015 than in January 2014 —  there’s no end in sight.

It’s not just a problem in Boston. Apartments in San Francisco became more expensive than those in New York City for the first time in 2014, and the city is seeing its own housing controversy.

No-fault evictions have become more and more problematic, as data has begun to show that most of them are near shuttle bus stops for commuter buses to Silicon Valley. And as the oil boom continues in North Dakota, the most expensive place to rent in America is, improbably, Williston.

A History of Protecting Renters’ Rights

In the 1970s, protests against high rents and other landlord abuses led to rent control and other tenant law reforms. Although rent control has since been repealed, Massachusetts law is still generous to tenants. But now, property owners say, the power in disputes is all on the tenant’s side — leading to thousands of dollars in lost income and property damage that owners are saddled with financially.

Massachusetts law does allow no-fault evictions, which has led to accusations — some justified — that landlords regularly evict tenants when they simply want to raise the rent substantially. A March article in the Bay State Banner said, “According to data from Right to the City Boston, twenty percent of evictions in Massachusetts are no-fault.”

But on the other hand, Massachusetts law doesn’t require tenants to place rent in escrow when a dispute over property conditions arises. In 2013, the state’s Fair Housing Law passed, protecting tenants in domestic violence situations from retaliation by landlords when they break their leases, change the locks, or call the police.

Richard Vetstein, who writes the Massachusetts Real Estate Law blog, wrote that the tenant-friendly environment in the state has led to the “professional tenant.” This type of tenant knows how to use the law to his or her advantage to get months of free rent, resist eviction, and cause significant damage to a property without ever paying for it.

Changes in the Wind?

Landlords in the area have been fighting back, and they’re getting a bit of traction lately, even in the media. A December article in The Boston Globe described how a landlord-tenant dispute became be a nightmare for the owner but a free-rent ride for the tenant.

An opinion piece in The Boston Globe Magazine acknowledged that many laws favor landlords, but argued that there are sensible fixes for laws that unfairly favor renters rights, such as requiring rent to be placed in escrow during disputes.

In the political arena, legislation is pending in the Massachusetts legislature that would expand the state’s Housing Court, which handles landlord-tenant disputes, to the entire state by July 1.

Another bill, which would require tenants to place rent in escrow, is also before the legislature, but has seen no activity since June of last year.  A slightly more receptive media environment eventually may lead to more balanced laws.

Elizabeth Gehrman, who wrote The Boston Globe Magazine article and is a landlord herself, certainly hopes so, and not just for property owners’ sake. “Many tenant advocates believe laws like [Massachusetts’] barely skim the surface in safeguarding low-income renters,” she writes. “But they can also have the opposite effect by discouraging landlords, despite anti-discrimination laws, from taking on higher-risk renters in the first place.”

Do you think there’s a double standard in how the media covers property owners’ rights versus and renters’ rights? Leave a comment, and tell us your side of the story.

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Holly Dolezalak

Holly Dolezalek is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. Over the last 15 years, she has covered general business, real estate, finance, and the green economy for local and national business publications.

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