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Walsh gives tentative support for measure to rein in evictions

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh cautions that many details still must be worked out.Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/File 2015

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said his administration is considering new protections for renters who are being priced out of the city's booming housing market.

Last week, Walsh said he supports "the concept" of a proposed just-cause eviction ordinance that tenant groups are drafting. It would require landlords to give cause for an eviction and attempt mediation on rent hikes of more than 5 percent.

That news cheered tenant advocates, who are organizing a campaign to put the proposal before the Boston City Council in early 2016. The measure would also need the Legislature's approval.

But Walsh administration officials, in interviews, stressed that key details still need to be worked out and that there may be other approaches to more effectively deal with the impact of rapid rent hikes and redevelopment, which are pushing residents from the city's traditional working-class neighborhoods.


"The administration is very concerned about displacement," said Sheila Dillon, Walsh's housing chief. "We're looking at just-cause eviction. We're reviewing it and looking at additional tools, as well."

The issue has picked up speed in recent months as housing activists from East Boston to Egleston Square have worked to raise awareness of renters being pushed out of their apartments by new owners who aim to cater to more affluent young adults. Nearly half of renters in metropolitan Boston spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing, according to a report from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. About one-quarter spend 50 percent of their income on rent.

Unlike New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other pricey cities, Boston has no rent control, and tenant groups insist they're not pushing to revive that controversial measure here. What they're proposing is a law requiring landlords to give cause before evicting a tenant, and recommend nonbinding mediation for any rent increase of more than 5 percent. The measure would prohibit evictions except under certain circumstances, such as nonpayment of rent, a lease violation, and damage to the apartment.


That wouldn't stop a landlord who's determined to replace tenants, said Steve Meacham, organizing coordinator at City Life/Vida Urbana, a tenant advocacy group that's helping to push the measure. But it can at least buy those tenants time to find a new place.

"This just slows it down a bit," Meacham said. "We think that if investor landlords have to sit down and look the tenant in the face who they're displacing, that can only be a good thing."

Landlord groups see it differently.

Last week, a newsletter from the Small Property Owners Association called the mediation proposal "rent control by intimidation." And Greg Vasil, president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said the system would handcuff landlords and hinder investment in rental housing.

"In a free-market system, you pay what the market will bear," Vasil said. "Are we in a free-market system, or not?"

Both sides will make their case to the City Council, which is likely to take up the matter in the new year. Prior to the fall elections, most of the current 13 councilors said they would support a just-cause eviction oridnance. But they're just now beginning to study concrete proposals, said Councilor Michelle Wu.

"It really comes down to the specifics," said Wu, who will take over as the council's president in the new term. "You can say 'just-cause eviction' and people have all sorts of preconceptions. It's going to be our job to get into the nitty-gritty."


The Walsh administration, too, is mulling the details. The mayor signaled his support in an interview with WGBH on Tuesday, but also said the proposal needs to be more closely examined.

"We'll continue to have conversations about this and how it works," Walsh said, according to a transcript. "If everything worked out positively we could do something, absolutely."

Any measure passed by the council would probably come in the form of a home-rule petition, meaning it would need support on Beacon Hill. Its backers acknowledge that could be a challenge, too.

Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.