Notorious Allston landlord branches out to Somerville; backlash ensues
SOMERVILLE — Residents of three buildings on Summer Street here are on edge — not just because they’ve been socked with big rent increases, but because the hikes come from one of the area’s most notorious landlords.
In February, Anwar Faisal bought three apartment buildings with about 100 apartments and told the local newspaper that he planned to raise rents 5 to 7 percent at most. Instead, tenants said, they were told their new rents would be hundreds or even thousands of dollars higher.
Faisal has a long history of housing code violations, lawsuits, and criminal charges related to his 2,000 or so Boston apartments. In 2014, he was one of the landlords profiled in a Boston Globe Spotlight series on squalid and unsafe conditions in apartments rented by college students. Tenants accused Faisal of charging exorbitant rents while doing little to address mold, broken locks, poor heating, and bedbug infestations.
Now, just weeks after buying his first buildings in Somerville, Faisal faces an organized backlash from his new tenants. They’re demanding he reduce the rent increases, and address problems they say have cropped up since becoming their landlord, such as pest infestations.
“The fact that he’s coming in and giving us poor service while trying to charge us more is completely unreasonable,” said Abigail Taylor, a resident of 163 Summer St. who said Faisal’s real estate company first proposed raising the rent on her apartment by $2,000 when her lease was up. “I love this building, but the horror stories from other people who have dealt with him in the past make me want to move.”
Taylor and her neighbors have organized a 50-member tenant association to negotiate with Faisal, documenting other changes in living conditions they said accompanied his ownership of the buildings. Those include intermittent heat on cold days, the appearance of ants and rodents, workers and real estate agents coming into their apartments without warning, and difficulty getting anyone from Faisal’s property management company to respond to complaints.
Faisal did not return repeated requests for comment, nor did others at his primary real estate company, Alpha Management Corp. In February, Faisal told the Somerville Journal that he would raise rents in the buildings for working professionals, but keep prices the same for veterans, elderly people, and residents with disabilities. And last week he defended his practices in another interview with the Journal.
“The rents are extremely low so we are recovering some of the expenses . . . We want to pay the bill. We want to maintain the building,” Faisal told the Journal. “It’s still below the market — why should they be complaining?”
Somerville officials said they were sympathetic to the tenants’ situation, but said the city can’t block rent increases or single out a landlord for extra inspections.
“It is against the law for the city to treat a landlord differently based solely on a reported reputation,” said a spokeswoman for Mayor Joseph Curtatone. “What it is important for any tenant to know though is that our . . . officers will respond to every complaint of a potential violation.”
On Thursday city inspectors issued a stop-work order at one of the buildings after they discovered that Faisal had started construction without a permit. The spokeswoman said inspectors found that a contractor hired by Faisal had demolished an interior wall without permission. He must now apply for a permit and pay triple the usual fee.
A dozen residents who spoke with the Globe said Alpha managers quoted them significantly higher rents to renew their apartment leases; in several cases, tenants said Alpha proposed adding bedrooms to their units by walling off common areas such as living rooms and charging more.
When her lease for up for renewal, Taylor said, an Alpha manager told her the dining room and a second smaller room would be made into bedrooms, and the new rent would be $4,200, up from $2,200. After she protested, the manager lowered the new rent to $3,200, Taylor said, still far higher than what Faisal had said in the February interview with the Journal.
Other residents said Alpha told them they would have to pay anywhere from $150 to nearly $600 more a month to renew their leases. Some would end up paying close to the neighborhood average — $2,500 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to a recent city housing study. But a number of proposed rents cited by the tenants would far exceed the average. And some residents said the company calculated higher rents by counting common areas of their apartments as bedrooms.
Some tenants said they successfully negotiated smaller increases; others, such as Taylor, have yet to decide whether to renew.
“Everyone has the same story,” Taylor said. “They just throw arbitrary numbers out until you agree.”
City inspectors in March found no evidence of rodents or that living rooms were being converted into bedrooms, the mayor’s spokeswoman said. Residents disputed that, saying construction is ongoing throughout the buildings and that Alpha has stockpiled drywall and other materials at one site.
With little recourse, the Summer Street residents have enlisted help from the nonprofit advocacy group Somerville Community Corporation, hoping they can pressure Faisal into tempering the rent increases and being more responsive. Karen Narefsky, an organizer for the community group, said Faisal’s notoriety could help bring greater attention to how rising rents are squeezing longtime residents out of Somerville.
“A lot of displacement is happening because of transactions like the one on Summer Street,” said Narefsky, “We thought this was a good opportunity, because he’s such a high-profile landlord and a lot of the tenants already knew who this guy was.”
A similar story unfolded in Medford and Malden when Faisal bought apartment buildings in those cities in 2011. He immediately sought rent increases of up to $350 from the tenants there, telling a local online news publication, “the honeymoon’s over.” Eviction notices followed.
Residents fought back, forming a union and challenging their evictions in court while they sought new housing. They told the Globe at the time that Faisal had changed their locks, allowed rental agents to enter their apartments without notice, and used a parking sticker requirement to pressure residents into signing paperwork.
A judge in one of the resulting cases found that Faisal had improperly refused to refund the tenants $25,000 worth of security deposits, and admonished him for adopting a “fight-everything-at-any-cost” approach to avoid paying $60,000 in legal fees to attorneys for the tenants.
In Boston, though, city officials said Faisal properties have been much improved since the Globe stories prompted public hearings and vows to step up enforcement. William Christopher, head of the city’s Inspectional Services Department, or ISD, said Faisal now receives fewer violations, attends meetings the agency holds with landlords, and has registered his apartments in a city database of student housing.
“Quite honestly, he’s no longer in my book of people I watch intently,” Christopher said. “He’s been on the straight and narrow.”
However, a spokeswoman said ISD cannot easily track how many violations it has issued to a landlord, thanks to an antiquated record-keeping system.
Chris Wand, a 31-year-old resident of the Somerville apartments, said he will have to pay an additional $250 a month to renew his lease, about 15 percent higher. While he said that wasn’t exorbitant given the local housing market, he is upset by how Alpha has treated him and his neighbors so far.
“It’s hard not see everything as part of a pattern, given what we know about the company,” Wand said. “I feel like if we don’t draw a line in the sand, things are just going to get worse.”