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.