This summer, when Lester White heard the Mattapan apartment building he has called home for 20 years was going up for sale, he figured, well, that was that.
“I thought, ‘I”ve got to get ready to move. The neighborhood’s changing over,’" he said. “I was ready to go to Home Depot and pick up some boxes.”
But instead, White went to a meeting with some of his fellow tenants at the Morton Village Apartments, an aging 207-unit complex off Gallivan Boulevard. Then he went to another, and another. Last week, the tenants group and the building’s new owners announced a deal that will keep the current residents of Morton Village in place, with modest rent hikes, for at least five years, with a little help from City Hall.
It’s the sort of deal supporters say can help stabilize Boston’s tumultuous housing market, especially for working-class renters at risk of being pushed from their neighborhoods as deep-pocketed investors move in. Not unlike a union contract, the private agreement reached between tenants and the landlord lays out modest rent increases so everyone knows what the next few years will look like, and can plan accordingly.
With housing advocates fearing a wave of evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and landlords anxious about a growing effort to reinstate formal rent control in Boston, this kind of voluntary agreement can be a model that makes sense for all involved, said Maggie Gribben, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services who helped the tenants group negotiate.
“This is something that’s possible for other landlords to do,” she said. “And it creates a mutual respect from the very beginning.”
The effort started during the summer when Morton Village’s longtime owners, Arlington-based Mirak family, put the complex on the market. When tenant Kwesi Matthew heard about the impending sale — from a UPS delivery man — she worried that a new owner would raise the rents beyond what many of Morton Village’s longtime residents could afford. (They now start at about $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.) Huge rent hikes have hit at a few other Mattapan apartment buildings that have sold in recent years, and she feared Morton Village — close by a new Commuter Rail station — could be next.
“You hear about these things all across Boston,” said Matthew, who has lived at Morton Village for 15 years. “I was really nervous.”
She started spending Thursday nights attending tenants meetings via Zoom that were organized by housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana. The first had just 10 people but gradually their numbers grew. The participants also went door-to-door getting all 207 households to sign a petition urging any new owner to meet with tenants and agree to reasonable rent increases. Matthew said residents who only spoke Haitian Creole called English-speaking relatives to translate.
“We got each and every tenant on board,” she said. “Even the ones I couldn’t really talk to. We got their signatures.”
Meanwhile, Mirak went about selling the building. Several nonprofit housing developers put together offers, but eventually Mirak reached a deal with Avanath Capital Management, a California-based firm that owns 87 “workforce housing” complexes across the country. They closed last month on a $41 million sale, according to records filed in Suffolk County.
It’s Avanath’s first building in Boston, said CEO Daryl Carter, though it’s long eyed the market. He lived in Mattapan briefly in the 1970s, while in graduate school at MIT, and regularly returns to the city.
“Boston is a place we’ve wanted to do business in,” Carter said. “There’s strong job growth, and also a big need for workforce housing."
When his group buys a building, Carter said, it never plans to displace tenants — long-term stability helps everyone, including landlords, he said — and it’s used to operating with fixed rents from various subsidized affordable housing developments Avanath owns around the country. But it’s never negotiated a deal quite like this one.
“It’s not typically what we do,” he said. “But it’s consistent with our mission of working with residents.”
It was helped along by the City of Boston, which kicked in $4 million in exchange for an agreement to keep rents low at Morton Village for the long term, even after the five-year contract ends. It’s part of a program the city launched to invest in existing, older, modestly priced apartments as a way to keep them affordable. It’s been used to fund buildings from Hyde Park to East Boston in recent years, usually partnering with nonprofit housing agencies.
“In many cases, it’s less expensive than us funding new construction,” said Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing. “The goal of all these deals is to keep people in their homes.”
That was the goal of tenants at Morton Village, too. They negotiated their deal on top of the city’s agreement with Avanath. It took a lot of back and forth, Matthew said, and even a few protests to draw publicity and show their resolve. But eventually the tenants and Avanath reached an agreement that allows for 3 percent rent hikes each of the next three years, and 3.25 percent in the two years after that. Residents older than 70 will only receive 3 percent increases annually.
The pact only applies to current tenants — Avanath is free to raise rents if people leave — but it means those who’ve called the complex home for years know they’ll be able to do so for at least five more. That’s comforting to White. He likes his neighborhood, the barber shop and the barbecue place close by, his Dunkin' on the corner, and the community of people he knows. Now he can stay.
“I was thinking I’d have to go to Providence or something,” he said. “But we fought together and we won together. And some pretty good things came out of this.”