July 2012bostonoccupier.com | The Boston Occupier - Free Press
Tenants Assembleto Fight Drastic RentHikes
By Dan Schneider
Alice Alisme had come to expect the letters. There was thethe Notice to Quit Tenancy, the new rental application letter,the lock change notice, and, most importantly, the letter which said: “All tenants will be given the choice of a new rentunder a tenancy-at-will or a 12-month lease[…]all units willlikely see an increase in rent…” All were slipped under her door during the last two months.So far, they’d yet to yield more than an angry phone call, ora frustrating afternoon trying to get back into her apartment when the locks had suddenly been changed.That is, until July 2. Alisme came home to find an evictionnotice slipped under her door.“I knew something like this was gonna happen,” she said.“They’ve been retaliating against me since the beginning.”“They” are Alpha Management, an Allston-Brighton realestate company owned and operated by Brookline resident Anwar Faisal. The “beginning” was the decision of Alisme andher fellow tenants to come together as a single union.
In late April Alpha Management purchased her apartmentcomplex at 17-19 Washington Street, along with two othersin Malden and one in Medford. Just days after the purchase,she and the residents of over 250 other units were told that thenew management would be raising their rent between 22 and58%, amounting to an increase of $200 to $600 per month.These changes, the note said, would take place within the next15 days.For many of residents, the rent increases would be impos-sible to meet. Some residents already relied on Section 8 fortheir rent each month, and many made ends meet with thehelp of EBT (or ‘food stamps’) . Many were elderly or disabledand had relied on tacit or verbal agreements with the build-ing’s previous owner to get by.In response to Alpha Management’s abrupt rent hike,nearly three-quarters of the tenants affected began to organize(of the remainder, some simply accepted the rent increases, while others chose to move out).Two days after receiving the Notice to Quit – whichincluded each tenants’ new, higher rent, should they choose tosign a new lease – residents of over 150 units gathered togetherto plan their course of action.“Originally, [my apartment building] thought we were working independently,” Alisme said. “But when we cameto meet, there was a group in the space we’d planned to use,tenants from another building. They were talking about theexact same thing!”Together they decided to form a tenants’ union in orderto bargain collectively for a fairer rent increase. The group, which is named Malden/Medford Tenants United (M/MTU)meets weekly in Malden, to discuss tactics and plan how to get Alpha to negotiate with them.In May they voted to authorize a rent strike. However,most members of the union have chosen instead to continuepaying rent -- at their former rates -- as a show of good faith to Alpha Management.Thus far, Alpha Management and Mr. Faisal have declinedto negotiate with M/MTU. Malden Mayor Gary Christensoneven personally intervened in mid-May, arranging a meetingbetween building residents and the building’s new owner.Hopes were high among tenants that Christenson’s inter-vention might lead to a compromise, but Faisal refused tobudge on his ultimatum: pay the higher rent or move outimmediately.
No Room for Negotiation
Tenant organizations have a long – and sparsely docu-mented – history in the United States. During the GreatDepression, Jewish and Black communities in New York City were a hotbed of tenant activism, organizing unionsand successfully executing rent strikes, pickets, and lobbyingefforts for favorable legislation. Professor Mark Naison of Fordham University writes that these groups “fought for theconstruction of public housing, worked to improve conditionsin slum tenements, and strove to limit the disruptive impactof urban renewal.”These groups have been an integral part of the landscapeof tenants and housing rights, including in Massachusetts.Over the past decade, residents of several Mattapan apartmentcomplexes fought a protracted battle against their landlords,The Mayo Group, to bargain collectively over proposed rentincreases. Continual pressure, heightened public scrutiny andhelp from local housing rights organization City Life/VidaUrbana (CL/VU) paid off for the tenants, and the MayoGroup has since greed to negotiate proposed rent hikes.Unfortunately, the same has yet to prove true for theMalden and Meford tenants. Many are fed up with Faisal’sdownright refusal to consider working with M/MTU as abargaining group and his attempts to intimidate members intosigning individual deals. Resident Howard McGowan toldthe Occupier, “[Faisal] says that if one of us is disabled or aveteran, he’ll negotiate. But only alone. Divide and conquer.”McGowan, an 88 year old World War II veteran, has livedin the same apartment on Pleasant Street for 21 years withhis wife of 61 years. He now faces a rent increase of $300per month. McGowan says that his new landlords have, whileasking for more money, failed to care for the apartments. Asevidence, he cites issues involving lead paint, and $4000 infines issued to Alpha Management by Inspectional Services,for not having apartments inspected before moving in new tenants (a legal requirement in the city of Malden).“We know that if we sign the lease, we’d still be living undera slum landlord,” he said.Other tenants confirm this. One points out the mold in herkitchen, windows and shower. Another, who was in the processof moving out during her interview with the
, pointedto collected grime and trash in her complex’s basement.The failure to reinvest money in the residences is consistent with Faisal’s record. In the last decade, Faisal has acquireda reputation for his shrewd, and at times illegal, businesspractices.For instance, Alpha Management was the subject of a 2010investigative report by WBZ, which found 73 complaints filedagainst the company from its Allston-Brighton apartmentbuildings in an 18-month period. The complaints rangedfrom simple maintenance failures to cases of serious negli-gence, involving rat and cockroach infestations. As a landlord and businessman, Faisal’s work has not only earned him the scorn of many former tenants, who havecomplained for years about Alpha on the company’s Yelppage, but has also drawn the attention of the U.S. Departmentof Labor. In November of 2011, the DoL found that Alphahad been systematically underpaying many of the painters, janitors, electricians and plumbers it employed by misclassi-fying them as independent contractors. In November 2011– just five months before purchasing the Malden and Medfordproperties - Mr. Faisal agreed to pay $250,000 in back wagesand liquidated damages for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.But Faisal is nonplussed by these fresh accusationsof mismanagement, and blames the buildings’ previousmanagement for the problems the tenants now face.“He wasn’t professional management,” he said, “They haveto understand that they’ve been in a honeymoon for years,and that it has to end.” Faisal believes that the apartmentsproximity to Malden’s downtown and the train station makesthem prime real estate, worth far more than he’s asking. When asked what would become of the tenants who refusedto accept the rent increases, Faisal held firm. “If [they] don’tlike it, [they] have two choices: go shopping for a new place,or keep what you have.”
Hope In the Face of Eviction
In the last few months, dozens of tenants have moved out of the Malden/Medford buildings, rather than pay a higher rentor continue living under Mr. Faisal as a landlord. For some,like Alice Alisme, the choice to move or stay isn’t much of achoice at all.“I can’t afford to move, that costs money. I’d like to livehere, but I can’t afford $1150 per month.” she said. Alice has continued to pay her old rent of $850, in thehopes that the management of Hillside Urban Properties LLC would see it as a sign of good faith. After receiving her evictionnotice, however, she has come to believe that her role as theunofficial leader of M/MTU has made her a target for Hillsidemanagement.“Other people totally refused to pay rent at all in June,” Alice says during a visit to City Life/Vida Urbana in JamaicaPlain, “I paid the original rent, they even cashed my check,and they’re still trying to evict me.”City Life/Vida Urbana has been providing M/MTU withlogistical support since close to the beginning. Although, asone organizer for CL/VU, told the
, “We got thereand they were already crazily well organized, I was surprised.”Given the recent successes of groups like CL/VU -- includingtheir 2006 Mattapan campaign to fight rent increases by theMayo Group –members of M/MTU feel that they have astrong chance of making their demands a reality.Most important of these demands, agreed to unanimously by M/MTU members during a recent meeting, is one for areasonable rent increase, equivalent to 5% a year for 5 years.In the meantime, Alice Alisme is working with City Life toprepare for her eviction hearing in mid-July. If that hearinggoes in her favor, not only will other tenants have a basis toforestall eviction, but others in the community may begin toassert their rights as tenants.“I wish my neighbors understood how powerful they really are,” she said.industry leaders. For instance, Exxon Mobil CEO RexTillerson assured the Council on Foreign Relations thatclimate change is “an engineering problem and it has engi-neering solutions.”Many disagree, and abundant evidence supports them. Forinstance, the June 7 issue of
suggests that if humanity does not radically and quickly adopt ecologically soundeconomic practices –– like sustainable energy consumptionversus subsidizing fossil fuels –– then it will likely pass an irre-deemable “tipping point.” The June update of MIT’s
2012 Energy and Climate Outlook
projects that without “substantialmandates or tighter climate policies,” temperatures couldincrease as much as 7 degrees C by 2100.To combat this, 350 plans to attack on two fronts: “inside,”via working for sensible legislation; and “outside,” via grass-roots pro-democracy activism.In the former arena, 350 is pushing the ‘End Polluter Welfare’ Bill, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) andRepresentative Keith Ellison (MN). This would cancel theplanned $113 billion in taxpayer money projected to go tofossil-fuel companies over the next ten years.The latter piece of the strategy is where Occupy comes in.Direct actions to support the ‘End Polluter Welfare’ Bill havealready been planned in Holyoke, MA, Portsmouth NH, andRutland, VT for August 4. After Aroneonu’s comments, organizers –– some of whom,like Brandeis student Dorian Williams, helped set up Occupy Boston nine months prior –– split off into breakout groupsto plan issue-centered campaigns. These include politicalaccountability, holistic management, “no coal by 2020,” andopposition to Tar Sands New England.Like the Occupy Movement, 350 officially commits tononviolence. As part of its toolkit on how to organize local workshops, 350.org’s website directs readers to informationabout Satyagraha, or the “force which is born of truth andlove, or non-violence,” as Mahatma Gandhi translated it. Theapproach famously inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, whotraveled to India in 1959.Last August police arrested over 1,000 activists who stageda sit-in in front of the White House. They had practicednonviolent resistance to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline.Over 10,000 descended on the building again in November,encircling it and succeeding in pressuring the Obama Administration to at least postpone and review the project.“Raise your hand if you participated in Washington D.C.,last August,” instructed Vanessa Rule, Director of Community Engagement at the Better Future Project. Several attendees didso. The rest thanked them in a spirited round of applause.
The Revolutionary Peace
To conclude the evening, nearly the entire group walkedoutside across the street to the Cambridge Common. “Mikecheck!” a voice yelled.“In 1775, in this exact space, George Washington firstgathered the Continental Army,” explained activist Craig Altemose. The multitude echoed his words, holding handsand forming a circle in the grass.“There were individual militias from Concord, andLexington, and Cambridge. And they knew that they couldnot defeat the British Empire if they fought alone, and if they stood alone. Today we have the same need for commonpurpose. And the beautiful thing about our cause is that we arenot coming together to fight against our brothers and sisters; we are coming together to save our brothers and sisters.“We come together to not fight for death, but to fight forlife; to fight for energy sources that do not require people todie; to fight for healthier communities.”“350 Massachusetts!” the crowd cheered with energy,before beginning to dissipate into the warm night.
350.org Launches MA Network (Continued rom Page 1)
A sign posted to an apartment door promoting Malden/Medford Tenants United, a tenants association that formed in May to oppose impending rent hikes.(Photo: Dan Schneider)