Malden, MA — Alice Alisme had come to expect the letters. There was the 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 rent under a tenancy-at-will or a 12-month lease[…]all units will likely 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, or a 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 eviction notice 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 real estate company owned and operated by Brookline resident Anwar Faisal. The “beginning” was the decision of Alisme and her fellow tenants to come together as a single union.
In late April Alpha Management purchased her apartment complex at 17-19 Washington Street, along with two others in Malden and one in Medford. Just days after the purchase, she and the residents of over 250 other units were told that the new management would be raising their rent between 22 and 58%, amounting to an increase of $200 to $600 per month.
These changes, the note said, would take place within the next 15 days.
For many of the residents, the rent increases would be impossible to meet. Some residents already relied on Section 8 for their rent each month, and many made ends meet with the help of EBT (or ‘food stamps’) . Many were elderly or disabled and had relied on tacit or verbal agreements with the building’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 – which included each tenants’ new, higher rent, should they choose to sign a new lease – residents of over 150 units gathered together to plan their course of action.
“Originally, [my apartment building] thought we were working independently,” Alisme said. “But when we came to meet, there was a group in the space we’d planned to use, tenants from another building. They were talking about the exact same thing!”
Together they decided to form a tenants’ union in order to 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 continue paying rent — at their former rates — as a show of good faith to Alpha Management.
Thus far, Alpha Management and Mr. Faisal have declined to negotiate with M/MTU. Malden Mayor Gary Christenson even personally intervened in mid-May, arranging a meeting between building residents and the building’s new owner. Hopes were high among tenants that Christenson’s intervention might lead to a compromise, but Faisal refused to budge on his ultimatum: pay the higher rent or move out immediately.
No Room for Negotiation
Tenant organizations have a long – and sparsely documented – history in the United States. During the Great Depression, Jewish and Black communities in New York City were a hotbed of tenant activism, organizing unions and successfully executing rent strikes, pickets, and lobbying efforts for favorable legislation. Professor Mark Naison of Fordham University writes that these groups “fought for the construction of public housing, worked to improve conditions in slum tenements, and strove to limit the disruptive impact of urban renewal.”
These groups have been an integral part of the landscape of tenants and housing rights, including in Massachusetts. Over the past decade, residents of several Mattapan apartment complexes fought a protracted battle against their landlords, The Mayo Group, to bargain collectively over proposed rent increases. Continual pressure, heightened public scrutiny and help from local housing rights organization City Life/Vida Urbana (CL/VU) paid off for the tenants, and the Mayo Group has since greed to negotiate proposed rent hikes.
Unfortunately, the same has yet to prove true for the Malden and Meford tenants. Many are fed up with Faisal’s downright refusal to consider working with M/MTU as a bargaining group and his attempts to intimidate members into signing individual deals. Resident Howard McGowan told the Occupier, “[Faisal] says that if one of us is disabled or a veteran, he’ll negotiate. But only alone. Divide and conquer.”
McGowan, an 88 year old World War II veteran, has lived in the same apartment on Pleasant Street for 21 years with his wife of 61 years. He now faces a rent increase of $300 per month. McGowan says that his new landlords have, while asking for more money, failed to care for the apartments. As evidence, he cites issues involving lead paint, and $4000 in fines 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 under a slumlord,” he said.
Other tenants confirm this. One points out the mold in her kitchen, windows and shower. Another, who was in the process of moving out during her interview with the Occupier, pointed to 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 acquired a reputation for his shrewd, and at times illegal, business practices.
For instance, Alpha Management was the subject of aby WBZ, which found 73 complaints filed against the company from its Allston-Brighton apartment buildings in an 18-month period. The complaints ranged from simple maintenance failures to cases of serious negligence, 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 have complained for years about Alpha on the company’s Yelp page, but has also drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Labor. In November of 2011, the DoL found that Alpha had been systematically underpaying many of the painters, janitors, electricians and plumbers it employed by misclassifying them as independent contractors. In November 2011 – just five months before purchasing the Malden and Medford properties – Mr. Faisal agreed to pay $250,000 in back wages and liquidated damages for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
But Faisal is nonplussed by these fresh accusations of mismanagement, and blames the buildings’ previous management for the problems the tenants now face.
“He wasn’t professional management,” he said, “They have to understand that they’ve been in a honeymoon for years, and that it has to end.” Faisal believes that the apartments proximity to Malden’s downtown and the train station makes them prime real estate, worth far more than he’s asking.
When asked what would become of the tenants who refused to accept the rent increases, Faisal held firm. “If [they] don’t like 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 rent or continue living under Mr. Faisal as a landlord. For some, like Alice Alisme, the choice to move or stay isn’t much of a choice at all.
“I can’t afford to move, that costs money. I’d like to live here, but I can’t afford $1150 per month.” she said.
Alice has continued to pay her old rent of $1000, in the hopes that the management of Hillside Urban Properties LLC would see it as a sign of good faith. After receiving her eviction notice, however, she has come to believe that her role as the unofficial leader of M/MTU has made her a target for Hillside management.
“Other people totally refused to pay rent at all in June,” Alice says during a visit to City Life/Vida Urbana in Jamaica Plain, “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 with logistical support since close to the beginning. Although, as one organizer for CL/VU, told the Occupier, “We got there and they were already crazily well organized, I was surprised.” Given the recent successes of groups like CL/VU — including their 2006 campaign in Mattapan to fight rent increases by the Mayo Group –members of M/MTU feel that they have a strong 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 a reasonable rent increase, equivalent to 5% a year for 5 years.
In the meantime, Alice Alisme is working with City Life to prepare for her eviction hearing in mid-July. If that hearing goes in her favor, not only will other tenants have a basis to forestall eviction, but others in the community may begin to assert their rights as tenants.
“I wish my neighbors understood how powerful they really are,” she said.