Click here to read more of the Boston Occupier’s original coverage of Malden/Medford Tenants United.
MALDEN, MA — After four months of organizing against rent hikes at her Malden apartment complex, Barbara Avery was beginning to sound battle-weary.
“We had really hoped we were being taken seriously by Alpha Management. Now they’re just sort of delaying everything,” she said.
Avery sits on the organizing committee of Malden/Medford Tenants United (M/MTU), a tenant union that formed in May after Alpha Management, an Allston-Brighton real estate company, took over four apartment complexes in the area and attempted to raise tenants’ rent between $200 and $600 on fifteen days’ notice. Alpha Management and its CEO, Anwar Faisal, purchased the buildings in a $24 million deal at the end of May, instituting the rent increases immediately afterwards.
Throughout the summer, M/MTU has fought an uphill battle to negotiate to what they consider a fair rent increase. Starting in early July, however, Alpha Management moved to evict dozens of tenants from their apartments
The resulting court battles have tied up much of the group’s energy. Although members of the M/MTU have continued to publicly protest Alpha’s policies— both at the courthouse and in front of the company’s Allston headquarters— 47 tenants have already been taken to court for refusing to pay the increased rent.
It’s become clear to many within M/MTU that Alpha is unlikely to capitulate any time soon. As such, some of the group’s summer staples — such as weekly courthouse protests— have been put on hold as practical concerns about activist fatigue and livelihood become more pressing.
“People had to take off work to be there in the morning,” Avery said. “It may start up again, but we felt that we had made our point.” Tenants have also been busy getting a crash course in tenant law. With the help of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), M/MTU members facing a trial have spent hours learning how to do things like file an Answer & Discovery motion.
Many have absconded from the fight entirely. Over 70 of the 266 apartments have been vacated since the beginning of the conflict, with most leaving due to financial constraints. One tenant, “April,” had lived in her apartment for three years after emigrating to the U.S. from Turkey. She moved out of her place at 349 Pleasant Street at the beginning of August rather than engage in a lengthy court battle. “I’m just a research assistant at U-Mass. I already have no money to put aside,” she said.
April also expressed skepticism over Alpha’s justification for increasing the rent: “They say that what they want is the fair market price, but they never say how they arrived at the figure.”
Indeed, many tenants have expressed confusion over this claim and believe that the rent increases are part of attempts by Faisal to bring in more students to the area. Marad, another tenant of 349 Pleasant Street who lives with his wife and newborn daughter, explained that “the people who have been moved into vacated apartments have been around 21, 22, 23. They have parents to pay their rent.” Marad also expressed concern about whether the new, younger tenants would be willing to take on Alpha Management. “They’re not invested in the communities they live in,” he said, “because they’re often there for a short time. So they’ll pay the rent and not put up a fuss.”
Meanwhile, tenants have had to deal with a landlord that has been alternately negligent and antagonistic towards those who have chosen to stay. During a general meeting of M/MTU, often six or seven people will step forward to share their most recent grievances. The most common ones stem from the fact that their buildings still don’t have an on-site superintendent for basic maintenance issues. These complaints are sometimes petty, but more often than not they reflect mismanagement that borders on— or strays into— the realm of the illegal.
In mid-July, Alpha instituted a mandatory parking sticker policy, and forced a 78 year-old tenant, Jim Boone, to sign a new lease before they would give him his sticker. Later that month, a couple that works nights woke in the afternoon to a realtor strutting through their apartment, without having been given the 24-hour notice required by state law. Recently, Alpha had a wall installed in a one bedroom apartment at 17 Washington Street — in order to turn it into a two bedroom — without receiving a permit from the city of Malden. A city inspector issued a fine and had the wall torn down. Just two weeks later, the wall had been put up again, and still no permit had been issued.
Anwar Faisal and Alpha Management declined to comment for this story.
In instances like these, tenants have received some assistance from their local government. Kathleen Hall, Malden’s Chief Administrative Officer, has attended every meeting of M/MTU thus far, often answering tenants’ questions about what legal recourse they might have in the situations they face. Beyond this, however, many within M/MTU are unhappy with the reaction of Malden’s elected officials.
Howard McGowan, an 88 year-old veteran and 30 year resident of his apartment at 349 Pleasant, serves on the tenant union’s organizing committee. A vocal critic of the local government’s response to his building’s plight – and a vigilant presence at Malden city council meetings — McGowan plans to challenge councilors to “back up their constituents” now that they’ve returned from the summer recess. Of particular interest to McGowan are councilors Jim Nestor and the newly elected John Matheson, whose wards each contain apartment complexes under the M/MTU umbrella.
“Every week we have the same things happening, over and over,” he said. “Let’s get these guys on the phone. They’re supposed to represent us!”
When asked for comment, Councilman Nestor–whose ward encompasses two of the apartment complexes that make up M/MTU— expressed his concern for the tenants’ plight, but noted that there is only so much a government official can do when it comes to a situation like this.
“In this economy, you don’t want to see anyone’s rent increase at all,” said Nestor, noting, “it’s private property. I’m not sure what jurisdiction we have.”
With a new round of court dates approaching and hopes of reconciliation wearing thin, members of M/MTU are beginning to realize that their situation may not be resolved as quickly or neatly as they’d hoped. Historically, disputes like carry on for up to years at a time. Residents of Mattapan apartments owned by the Mayo Group spent years battling rent hikes through collective bargaining. Although they ultimately succeeded, examples like theirs make one thing clear: M/MTU’s fight will be, as often is the case for activists, a marathon rather than a sprint.