Renting an apartment in Boston can be a marathon of stress and uncertainty in a normal year. But as we head into a third pandemic winter, there’s a heightened sense of dread for many low-income tenants. Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which tracks evictions across six states and 31 US cities, has documented a steady surge in evictions since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium expired in August 2021. In a typical year, 3.6 million evictions are filed by landlords across the country. While it’s estimated that the moratorium prevented more than 1.3 million evictions, the tide is coming back in. In this past week alone, about 9,000 eviction notices were filed in the places tracked by the Princeton group. Boston is one of the last cities where evictions have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, but the number is getting close.
However, nearly 20,000 people in rental units in Boston will be able to sleep more soundly this winter thanks to an unusual business decision made by one of the city’s largest landlords — a company that was until recently one of its biggest evictors.
The Boston-based WinnCompanies spans 22 states and owns or manages more than 100,000 subsidized rental units. Owing to its size, WinnCompanies was responsible for a significant number of the city’s pre-pandemic evictions; company leadership was surprised to learn they were as common as they were. (Like many landlords, WinnCompanies had not been tracking its evictions.) In 2019, Jay Rose, a tenants’ rights attorney who has worked with Greater Boston Legal Services, was invited to a meeting with WinnCompanies leadership to brainstorm solutions. Rose came up with an idea that was both practical and empathetic. Instead of evicting struggling renters and absorbing the various legal expenses of evictions, what if landlords tried working with them?
What Rose proposed was for WinnCompanies to become not just a rental housing provider but a steward of housing stability. Since Rose pitched his idea, WinnCompanies has taken a preventive approach to evictions, helping vulnerable tenants apply for state rent relief that’s available and negotiating sustainable rent payment plans for tenants who’ve fallen behind. According to WinnCompanies, every tenant who has availed themselves of this eviction prevention program since March 2020 has been able to stay housed. The company estimates that the program has yielded savings of $50 million in eviction-related costs while preventing 8,000 evictions in Massachusetts and 50,000 across all WinnCompanies properties.
Could this model be replicated elsewhere to keep more renters in their homes through the coming winter and beyond?
Joseph Schilling, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, points out that negotiations have long taken place between small landlords and tenants. “The mom-and-pop landlords already do this,” Schilling says. “They have 15 or less units for rent, they know who their tenants are, and there’s already a long-term history between them, in a positive way. So they’ll try to do everything they can to keep a tenant long term. The scale is such that it’s to their advantage to keep them.” Persuading landlords who own larger or more buildings to help prevent evictions could have a greater impact on renters. As it stands now, eviction costs are factored into big landlords’ business models, “just like advertising to attract new renters,” Schilling says. If tenant advocates can demonstrate that eviction prevention can save big landlords money, more of them are likely to get on board.
But persuading landlords to change their business models today will be a higher hurdle than it was in 2019, when WinnCompanies began emphasizing housing stability. Inflation is driving up property owners’ expenses for maintenance and repairs. The landlords who have remained unscathed are publicly traded corporate landlords. What’s more, the billions in emergency rent relief that the federal government sent to cities and towns is running out.
But the disbursement of this money did at least show us that it’s possible to compel landlords to play ball with tenants. Which means policy — not localized persuasion — could be the real key to tamping down evictions.
In late 2019, Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration published an action plan for reducing evictions in the City of Boston. One of its key provisions was a requirement for developers seeking funding from the Mayor’s Office of Housing Stability for affordable housing projects. Today, in order to qualify for these funds, housing developers must come up with an eviction prevention program that’s comparable to what WinnCompanies created. Sheila Dillon, Boston’s chief of housing, has overseen the enforcement of this policy over the last year. The goal is to ensure that providers of subsidized housing keep eviction rates below 2 percent per year.
It’s worth remembering, though, that most renters in Boston and elsewhere in the country live in unsubsidized market units that don’t come with built-in eviction protection programs. Lower-income tenants can still apply for whatever rent relief is available locally, but landlords are not always obligated to accept that assistance in lieu of evicting.
With limited lifelines, some tenants have turned to organizing with the help of advocacy groups such as Boston’s City Life Vida Urbana. In 2021, renters in East Boston lobbied their landlord to sell their building to a new nonprofit owner. A coalition of tenants in three Malden buildings was able to secure temporary rent stability from their landlord through a five-year lease.
And yet, for Lynette Ng, one of the renters who was involved in the Malden negotiations, the breakthrough of winning a long-term lease is only a temporary solution that speaks to the limits of piecemeal organizing. “I think it’s really important for the state to have some kind of role in legislating stability for renters,” Ng says.
Going forward, perhaps federal and state leaders should stop asking landlords to play the role of housing stability stewards and tackle the issue themselves. The WinnCompanies’ multistate model for turning landlords into housing stability providers is novel and effective. But its reach is limited and it partly depends on landlords empathizing with their tenants. This is where the state can step in to explore bolder policies. Elected leaders could make it legal for towns to enact rent stabilization policies. (Mayor Michelle Wu recently announced plans to lobby the state Legislature for the green light to do this in Boston.) And the state could play the role of housing developer itself by funding a mixed-income public housing pilot program, as Rhode Island plans to do next year.
The last time the state took action to prevent evictions, by placing hard limits on eviction and funneling cash relief to tenants as a novel virus changed the world, the policies mostly worked. Now, thousands of Boston renters who could soon be out in the cold again are waiting for another bold plan.
This article was updated on Dec. 2 to correct the reference to the 100,000 subsidized apartments in WinnCompanies’ portfolio.
Miles Howard is a journalist in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @milesperhoward or Mastodon at @MilesPerHoward@Better.Boston