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‘Mass displacement is a crisis’: Building clearouts are becoming increasingly common in Boston

Jose Velasquez has lived in East Boston for 11-years and is fighting eviction from the building with other tenants.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Jose Velasquez has lived in East Boston for 11 years and is fighting eviction from his apartment building with other tenants.

When his landlord sent him a barely working stove to replace the broken one in his East Boston apartment, Jose Velasquez decided to install his own — a newer model given to him by friends.

A few doors down in the same building, Juana Sanchez stretched her budget to buy a $60 part to fix a bathtub faucet that wouldn’t stop running, after calls to the same former landlord went unanswered.

Those aren’t their only stories about living conditions in the 14-unit apartment building at the corner of Meridian and Lexington streets — others involve bedbugs, cockroaches, and rat infestations. So when word got around in the spring that a new owner had taken over the building, residents hoped it meant improvements were coming. Instead, they received eviction notices in June.

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“I was petrified,” said resident Tonya L. Hector. “I didn’t know what I was going to do next.”

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The tenants, who have month-to-month leases, were supposed to move out by Aug. 1. Renters in all but six units did leave, with the remaining tenants fighting to stay put. Their ouster is on hold for now since the new owners have yet to file a complaint in housing court.

This kind of mass eviction — known as a building clearout — has become increasingly commonplace in Boston neighborhoods like East Boston, Dorchester, and Roxbury, as investors continue to ride a wave of new development and construction that has pushed up property values and inflated rents. Typically, developers renovate the properties and charge higher, market-rate rents, or convert the units into condominiums.

But it’s hard to know exactly how prevalent these evictions have become. The city doesn’t track them, and housing advocates say they only keep tabs on cases brought to their attention.

“Mass displacement is a crisis,” said Lisa Owens, executive director for City Life/Vida Urbana, a housing advocacy nonprofit that’s helping the East Boston tenants. “We have speculators brazenly coming to our neighborhoods marketing them as ripe for gentrification.”

The building at 298-300 Meridian Street in East Boston.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
The building at 298-300 Meridian Street in East Boston.

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Since 2012, City Life/Vida Urbana has worked on 66 building clearout cases, most of them within the past two years. They’ve included eviction notices, or significant rent hikes that essentially forced many tenants out, Owens said.

In rapidly gentrifying Chinatown, the Chinese Progressive Association has dealt with six recent building clear-outs, with several more at risk.

The surge of luxury residential developments downtown has put upward pressure on lower- and middle-income rents in surrounding neighborhoods, which are now attracting more investors, housing advocates say.

East Boston — home to a large immigrant population, mostly from Latin America — has attracted speculators willing to pay premium prices for properties. Many of the buildings have been under family ownership for generations, housing long-term tenants for years at below-market rents.

Andres Del Castillo, City Life/Vida Urbana’s lead organizer in East Boston, said investors are cashing in on neighborhood improvements fought for by residents who couldn’t afford to invest in real estate.

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“We’ve been out there marching for our streets to be clean, for violence to stop, for bus stops to be improved, for more police — all of these things that now these developers market for their rents to be so high,” Del Castillo said. “By virtue of that effort, [renters] created wealth for their community — but by not owning land, they did not create wealth for themselves. It was naiveté.”

‘‘In East Boston, they’re getting rid of poor people. I’d rather stay here and help fix it up.’’

City Life/Vida Urbana organizers have been pushing the city to adopt additional protections for renters, including requiring landlords to notify city housing officials when they move to evict tenants. That language is being considered by the City Council as it works through tenant protection legislation filed late last year by Mayor Martin J. Walsh. The council is expected to vote on it in September. Even if it passes, the measure would still require approval from the state Legislature.

The proposed law also would give the city a way to track evictions, said Sheila Dillon, Boston’s housing chief.

“We’re certainly hearing of them in East Boston, parts of Roxbury and Dorchester — new owners wanting to empty out a building, or old owners who want to sell it vacant. We know it’s going on, but don’t know to what degree,” Dillon said. She said the city is working with East Boston community development corporations to buy some occupied buildings as a way to keep people from being displaced.

Last year, the city earmarked $7.5 million toward a loan program to help investors acquire occupied multi-family rental properties, with a contingency — they have to agree to let tenants stay.

Meantime, investors like MG2, the Quincy-based firm that bought the building on the corner of Meridian and Lexington streets for $1.9 million, have been scooping up properties. MG2 intends to rent at market rate the dozens of East Boston properties it has recently acquired, including the Meridian Street building, said MG2 vice president Joe Donovan.

“We try to be sensitive to buildings we acquire with existing residents,” Donovan said. “We approach each resident individually on either staying or relocating.”

Donovan said the Meridian building needs to be emptied because it requires “substantial renovations both on the outside and on the inside, and it’s not the type of renovation where we can have people in the building.”

Donovan said his firm has no plans to take the tenants to court and has “been working with the residents on arrangements to be able to relocate elsewhere.”

Jose Velasquez, who has lived in his apartment for six years, said the company offered to pay $400 a month for a year toward an apartment in another building that rents for up to $1,600. But Velasquez says the lowest going rate for two-bedroom apartments in the area is closer to $1,800, well beyond his budget. He knows nothing will come close to the $950a month he now pays for the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter.

“In East Boston, they’re getting rid of poor people,” said Velasquez in his native Spanish. “I’d rather stay here and help fix it up.”

With its decaying and discolored wood panel siding, the building stands in stark contrast to the renovated spaces and new construction nearby, including the Seville Boston Harbor, a new luxury condo building where some units have sold for upwards of $700,000.

Juana Sanchez, one of the remaining tenants in the Meridian Street building, said she has put up with the lack of maintenance for about six years because she can’t afford moving costs. Nor would she and her husband be able to find something comparable to the $1,100 monthly rent they now pay.

“If I can find something better at this price, I’d leave in an instant,” Sanchez said in her native Spanish. “But there’s no way for me to get that, so I keep fighting to stay.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.