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Residents Form Union To Fight 22%-58% Rent Hikes

Tenants in Malden and Medford protest raised rents after large purchase by Brighton-based Alpha Management Corporation.

Tenants across the city found every renter's nightmare slipped under their doors last week: a notice their rents will increase anywhere from 22 percent to 58 percent next month, with just two weeks to decide whether to accept the new agreement. 

But residents say they won't take the hikes without a fight, and a majority of the tenants have formed a union – Malden Tenants United – to prevent what they call unreasonable increases in a sluggish economy.

The sudden increase and union-organizing comes after a total of 265 units at 349 Pleasant St., 17/19 Washington St. and 86-96 Maple St. in Malden, as well as 53/63 Fellsway in Medford, were purchased by Brighton-based Alpha Management, which owns and maintains more than 60 properties in the Greater Boston area.

Studios that once went for $600 jumped to as high as $850 to $950, one bedrooms from $900 to $1,150 and two-bedrooms from $1,100 to $1,350.

“Some people's rents raised $200, $250 – some $300,” Damon Syphers, who lives at 349 Pleasant St., said. “That's outrageous, to expect you can come in here, buy a building in May and want that kind of money by June....we're working people.”

As all the previous rental agreements at the properties were tenancies-at-will, the rent hike is legal. Tenants can be granted as little as thirty days to accept a new arrangement, willingly leave or face a formal eviction process in court.

 

The honeymoon's over”

Owner Anwar Faisal called the $24 million purchase a long-term investment for the company, describing Malden as a curiously “long ignored” area for real estate value to increase the next decade.

He said the rent increases, while imposing an unfortunate hardship on residents, represented a fair market value for the properties. Tenants, who said they conducted their own analysis, disagreed.

Faisal told Patch he wanted to encourage residents to reach out to him directly, but said he had a $160,000 a month mortgage to pay on the properties and couldn't afford to help everyone.

“I would like to work with all of them. They are very nice wonderful people,” Faisal said. “But when you are in a honeymoon and somebody asks you to live a normal life – the honeymoon's over – you reject that, you want to continue with that honeymoon.”

 

What does he expect?”

At the union's meeting, a number of tenants portrayed a starkly different account of Faisal's management style.

The letter slipped under residents' doors on April 27 did not indicate any such willingness to work with residents – only a standard legal form offering a 15-day window to accept the new rate or face eviction.

Residents had already formed a union, held two meetings, elected to collectively bargain and alerted city officials about their situation before the company started reaching out to residents nearly a week later, on May 3.

“You can't jack up the rent 30, 40 percent and expect people to accept that,” resident Robert Smith said. “What does he expect?”

Even as representatives reached out to tenants, some members complained of harassment related to repeated visits by Alpha employees anywhere from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., even after informing the representatives they would only negotiate collectively.

Faisal said these house calls were good faith efforts at negotiation and assistance, though members of the tenants union said the company has now ignored their demand to negotiate collectively for about a week.

“I think the good idea (would've been) to talk to everyone in the community first thing,” resident Vineela Tummala said.

 

A history of controversy

It’s not Faisal’s first brush with controversy.

In September 2010, Alpha Management was the focus of a WBZ investigative report that found 73 complaints against the company registered within 18 months. In 2008, 23 such complaints went to court before they were resolved.

In November, Faisal was ordered to pay $250,000 in back wages to 42 employees following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division that found he misclassified 42 workers as independent contractors and withheld owed overtime payments.

While tenants are more likely to complain than praise their landlords on the internet, online reviews of the company are full of angry, one-star ratings - as well as a number of glowing, five-star reviews Yelp’s spam filter identified as fraudulent.

 

Could collective bargaining work?

Boston-area tenants unions have been successful in the past – organizers with City Life, a Boston-based advocacy group, effectively organized tenants against proposed rent increases in Mattapan by The Mayo Group in 2006.

Such organizations were historically a significant political force in the city and surrounding area, Malden-based housing attorney Edward Rice said.

In fact, tenants associations are offered a number of legal protections similar to those governing unions, such as protection from retaliation.

“It used to happen more, back in the days of rent control and when people were sort of more activist(-oriented),” he said. “It's kind of fallen out of favor, especially as the economy was growing in the '80s and '90s – people would just move to new places if their rent went up.”

Rice said that the city’s rents stayed flat in 2007, and that he has seen such cases “picking up” in frequency as property values continue to increase in the city.

He said the standoffs often come down to economic factors.

“It would depend on the judge and landord,” he said. “If he has 250 units, does he really want to say, take 75 cases to court, or does he want to sit down and plan a strategy with these tenants that works for everybody?

“If you have to hire a lawyer for 75 evictions, you might be better off,” he said.

Union members say they continue to regularly meet and collect signatures for a letter they will send to the Alpha Management offices, outlining their objections as a basis for negotiations.  

howard mcgowan May 13, 2012 at 10:16 PM
300 DOLLARS ACROSS THE BOARD Pay or leave Many empties to be filled not on the adgenda unil SEPTEMBER
Aaron Prestley May 14, 2012 at 12:52 AM
It may have been un-PC but it's not racist. Where was the racism?
robert wilson May 14, 2012 at 02:36 PM
If ALPHA is anything like most Realters from Boston, especially the Brighton-Allston area, they are absentee slumlords, they buy the propertys and collect outragous rents and don't take care of their property.
cp kostos May 14, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Yes. The City should get involved...... rezone then build more affordable housing for this income group. Take a look at what Cambridge has done to create more affordable housing. Build enough units and Mr Faisal will be begging for some of these same tenants to come back. That's if he hasn't already converted to condo's. All senior citizens should be protected in these matters. The city should also put a freeze on condo conversions or at least make 25% of the units available to low income, disabled, elderly, and recent veterans.
Kasey Hariman May 14, 2012 at 05:52 PM
Thanks for answering! This and other responses help us get a better understanding for what's going on with the situation.
Kasey Hariman May 14, 2012 at 05:56 PM
Even if it isn't racist (which we could go back and forth on, but is likely not the best use of anyone's time), xenophobia is also still not welcome on Malden Patch, and that comment was definitely xenophobic.
DannyBoy May 14, 2012 at 06:31 PM
If Patch is going to censor xenophobia and and expressions of xenophobic sentiments by users, why not censor that comment by user Pete B on the article "POLL: Is It Fair To Judge Romney Based On His High School Behavior?". Here's his quote: "At least Mitt is an American citizen and never was involved with any domestic terrorists. But that won't matter the the supporters of our so called President. How come no stories about Barry in school?". I detect some double standards here!
Gene Pinkham May 14, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Rent Control is no longer practiced in MA. The only housing where income is considered in in public housing.
Jon Smith May 15, 2012 at 12:11 AM
Meanwhile, he lives large in a 6.5 million dollar home: http://virtualglobetrotting.com/map/anwar-faisals-house/view/?service=1
Aaron Prestley May 15, 2012 at 12:29 AM
Xenophobia is not welcome on the Patch. Already then, Big Brother. Let me know what other opinions we should and shouldn't have and we'll get right on making the appropriate posts.
Beth Chaplin May 15, 2012 at 12:37 AM
What a shame our new mayor isn't taking a stronger stand against what seems to be a very shady landlord. I'm disappointed, and reconsidering whether I should have voted for him.
Chris Caesar May 15, 2012 at 02:29 AM
I didn't notice that comment and will delete it immediately. If you think that racist attitudes are some kind of legitimate contribution to political discourse, I feel genuinely sorry for you.
Chris Caesar May 15, 2012 at 02:32 AM
Hm, actually, I just re-read the comment, and while I think Birther theories are stupid and probably rooted in racism, it is not open xenophobia. Unless I am missing something.
DannyBoy May 15, 2012 at 05:25 PM
Beth, I believe mayor Christenson has already tried to mediate this dispute between the tenants and the new landlord, asking Mr. Faisal to give more time to the tenants to decide on whether or not to renew their leases. Other than that, there's not much his office can do, as this case deals with private ownership, not public housing.
Andrew25 May 15, 2012 at 05:40 PM
I have a crazy idea for the tenants of this property. If you don't like your landlord and you think he's ripping you off.....MOVE!!!!! Can someone explain why this landlord, no matter "shady", has to give complete stangers a free ride?
Chris Caesar May 15, 2012 at 09:00 PM
Obviously that is easier said then done, and many residents were given notice to decide whether to stay or leave in 15 days. I think that's from where most of the anger is stemming.
Aaron Prestley May 16, 2012 at 01:43 AM
Not sure if you're referring to me, Chris, but I never said racism was a legitimate contribution. I'm a little unsure of your intentions here when you delete comments but then refer to them and quote them later. You seem to enjoy inflaming discussion rather than just moderating.
DannyBoy May 16, 2012 at 03:19 AM
Chris, it's all about the context. Just think of who the "birther" movement (and extreme right) is targeting: our POTUS, a mixed-race person, whose biological father was a black and Muslim Kenyan national, and who was later raised by another foreign stepfather, who happened to be Indonesian and Muslim. If this is not xenophobic, anti-Muslim, racist hysteria on a grand scale, then I don't know what it is!
Walter Peck May 16, 2012 at 04:45 AM
I'm appalled by Councilor Murphy's claim about "gentrification". Malden could use some gentrifying, and my free-falling property value in HER ward says so.
Chris Caesar May 16, 2012 at 06:00 AM
Aaron: Fair enough, but I consider xenophobia a form of racism and am not sure why someone would consider them fundamentally different. As for inflaming, I deleted the comment with a reminder to the two commenters who made such remarks that they would not be tolerated on these boards; when I was challenged by one commenter that no such remarks were being made, I quoted him to defend my decision. I've since gotten a lot of comments and feel obligated to answer them but I wasn't trying to do this in a cynical way. DannyBoy: I actually don't necessarily disagree with you, but it's a bit more of a grey area in my view. It's conceivable someone could believe Obama was born outside of the US and not be xenophobic/racist; saying Americans can understandably dislike foreigners and immigrants is pretty unambiguous.
Aaron Prestley May 17, 2012 at 01:23 AM
Chris, xenophobia is not a form of racism in that it doesn't involve feeling superior to or controlling another group. Simply, it's fear of the unknown or having a "bad taste" as the OP stated. Xenophobia can be changed or eliminated through exposure or education. Racism is usually rooted in xenophobia but the reverse is rarely true. It's okay to dislike someone or be leary of them. This is America. It's not okay to act on that dislike by disrespecting or humiliating them or being violent toward them. That's racism. Aside from all this, I think you should remove your comment where you quoted the "racist/xenophobic" statement if you find it so offensive that you deleted the original post to begin with.
Chris Caesar May 17, 2012 at 06:06 AM
Sorry, I disagree. Xenophobia is the dehumanization of someone based on a completely arbitrary feature of their identity (i.e. if they are not part of a chosen class of people, specifically American) that I think has many obvious parallels to racism. "Fear of the unknown" can play a role in racism as well, and there it is no more excusable. Is it really so much better to "have a bad taste in your mouth" about Mexicans instead of say, black Americans? Sorry, but the decision stands.
Aaron Prestley May 19, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Okay, boss. Not sure which dictionary you got that definition from (maybe the New Liberal Websters) but you can keep it.
Chris Caesar May 20, 2012 at 03:34 AM
LOL, yeah, I guess dictionaries have a liberal bias now.
Aaron Prestley May 21, 2012 at 11:50 PM
LOL, no just you.
jaycat May 23, 2012 at 05:15 PM
17-19 Washington St. is already starting to look shabby. Looks like no yard work has been done since the takeover. The grass is about a foot high in front of the building. Not that this is a big deal, in and of itself. Just the shape of things to come . . . everything had previously been meticulously maintained in the 6 yrs I have lived there.
Potential Renter June 05, 2012 at 12:19 PM
What happened with this? I can't find any info after May 15th or so. I'm supposed to be looking at an apartment at 349 Pleasant, but I don't want to take it if I'm going to be going against a union. Thanks!
Chris Caesar June 05, 2012 at 02:38 PM
Actually working on a follow up now!
Pleasant St Resident June 05, 2012 at 04:28 PM
Dear Potential Renter..... While it is a nice area to live in, the apartments are nothing special and for what they are asking people to pay you can get better some place else there is NOTHING modern in these apartments. Do your research on this owner (Anwar Faisal) and management company (Alpha Management) they do not have good reviews or a good reputation and do you want to live under someone who is not going to maintain the buildings in which you live. They have fired the 2 live in building superintendents and things are already looking bleak. We the tentants have formed a "Union" and are sticking together and hoping this man will be reasonable with us. Good Luck with your aparmtent search I know it is not easy as I cannot afford what this man wants me to pay and have been on the lookout for something new since I do not like his bad reputation.
Chris Caesar June 05, 2012 at 11:30 PM
Zing.

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