Four years ago, a letter changed Betty Lewis’s life.
It informed her that the new owner of the apartment complex in Mattapan where Lewis had lived for more than three decades was raising her rent by $450 a month.
And there wasn’t much she could do about it. Fibromyalgia has kept Lewis from working for nearly two decades, so she scrapes by on a small pension and Social Security payments.
Feeling trapped, she refused to pay the increase. Somehow, she hasn’t been evicted, but knows she’s teetering on the edge. Her landlord sends her a letter each month detailing how much back rent she owes. The amount recently eclipsed $10,000.
“What else am I supposed to do?” said Lewis, 71, who has become a regular presence at rent control rallies in the city. “I’ve lived here 30 years; this is my home. And lord knows there’s nowhere else in Boston I could afford. This is my only choice.”
The owner of Lewis’s building, development firm DSF Group, did not return a request for comment.
It’s a story that resonates in every corner of Boston. Residents of Lewis’s building who had long enjoyed below-market rents were forced out by the increases, and other pockets of the city that had been affordable, such as East Boston, are now hotbeds of displacement. Housing court is again filled with renters fighting evictions.
And yet as Boston’s supercharged housing market transforms lower-income corners of the city, there are few formal mechanisms in place to keep vulnerable renters in their homes. Policies that have long been on the books in other high-cost cities, such as prohibiting so-called “no cause” evictions or allowing tenants the opportunity to buy their building when it goes up for sale, have gone nowhere in Boston, often because such measures also need approval from the state Legislature. (A recent Globe investigation found that at least 86 percent of Massachusetts legislators own a home, and that more own rental property than are renters themselves.)
Many of those initiatives are divisive, and the real estate industry claims they will ultimately hurt landlords and developers at a time when housing production — a lot of it — is desperately needed to solve the region’s supply shortage.
But some argue that, without short-term solutions to help tenants stay afloat, the people who would most benefit from a healthier housing market with more affordable options will be long gone by the time policymakers get around to addressing the imbalance.
“Tenants need help now,” said Katie McCann, an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana, a tenant advocacy group. “We’re seeing tenants get displaced at a really concerning pace.”
Boston is both a city of renters, with some 65 percent of households not owning their home, as well as one of the more expensive housing markets in the nation. And the cost of living here has soared to new heights over the past two years. Rents in Greater Boston are up about 14 percent since 2020, according to rental website Apartment List, and the region consistently ranks as one of the three priciest major markets to rent an apartment.
Over that same period, pandemic-era renter protections — broad eviction prohibitions and beefed-up rent relief programs — have ended, removing a key safety net that staved off what many feared would be a wave of displacement.
It was temporary, but to advocates the pandemic-era programs proved that the state can act quickly to protect renters when it chooses to. That has revived a spirited campaign for a suite of renter protections.
But enacting those changes takes political will at multiple levels of government. That’s because most changes to local housing laws, aside from zoning, require a home rule petition to the Legislature and sign-off by the governor. And that, say Boston housing leaders, can be a big hurdle.
“To put it lightly, that lack of control we have over our housing policy makes things really challenging,” said City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who will take over as head of the Boston Housing Authority next month.
Boston housing advocates cite as an example the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act, a home rule petition that came out of Boston in 2018. It would have required landlords to notify the city when they send a tenant an eviction notice and created a more robust system for collecting eviction data. It was one of the more ambitious housing reforms out of Boston in decades, and advocates and local leaders tweaked and revised the petition for three years before sending it on to the Legislature for approval.
It never even got out of committee on Beacon Hill.
To tenant advocates, it was a major blow.
Renters have little recourse against an eviction after a formal proceeding begins. They can negotiate terms with their landlord in a court-ordered mediation session, but few tenants have legal representation in Housing Court, so reaching an agreement can be challenging. Landlords, on the other hand, complain that Massachusetts’ court-supervised eviction process can be costly and drag on for months.
Mayor Michelle Wu’s proposal to bring back a version of rent control, which was filed in the Legislature as a home rule petition last month, will bring a fresh test for Boston City Hall’s ability to get something done on Beacon Hill. The proposal would also create a database of rental units in Boston and prohibit no-cause evictions, which landlords can file against tenants even if they have not violated the terms of their lease.
Several US cities with comparable rental costs, such as San Francisco and New York, have versions of those policies. But Amir Shahsavari, vice president of landlord group the Small Property Owners Association, said the protections are not the law in Boston for good reason. Property owners in those cities, he said, complain they make it too difficult to evict “bad tenants,” and ultimately lead to small landlords selling their properties.
“They may help some tenants, but from our perspective, some of these measures around eviction are draconian, and they’re only going to hurt well-meaning property owners,” said Shahsavari.
Instead, Shahsavari proposes programs that send money for struggling tenants directly to their landlords.
Still, it’s not just city and town level proposals that have fizzled in the Legislature. Bills that would reform tenant law statewide, or create a so-called local option for communities to set their own policies, have repeatedly fallen short as well.
“Right to counsel” bills, for example, which would provide low-income residents with a court-appointed attorney in eviction cases statewide, have gone nowhere, though another version of the proposal has been submitted to the Legislature this year.
Another instance is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would obligate property owners to give tenants or their representatives the chance to buy their building before it hits the market. Washington, D.C., requires something similar.
A version of that act made it out of the Legislature in 2021 but was vetoed by then-governor Charlie Baker, who said it would dampen the state’s housing market and discourage housing production.
“It was a huge disappointment,” said Matt Thall, former executive director of the Fenway Community Development Corporation. “It’s something we could’ve done for tenants that we’re still not doing.”
But Baker’s reasoning said a lot. The real estate industry, which has big political sway in Massachusetts, opposed most tenant protection policies. Broadly, they say, such policies would make it harder to own property in Massachusetts and could deter developers from building here. And in a state with a deep housing shortage, they say, more supply is the best way to bring costs down for everyone.
“The only solution to the housing crisis is to build more housing,” said Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “We can’t do that if we’re actively making it more difficult for developers to build and for landlords to sustain themselves.”
But waiting on a big windfall of housing supply to ease the plight of tenants, advocates say, is impractical. And it leaves people like Lewis, who fears she could be evicted at any time, in the lurch.
“People like me, we deserve better than this,” she said.