17th Worcester House

 

 

[Start 0:00:00]

Rich: Are you guys ready for our first topic?

Moses: I’m ready.

Kate: Ready.

Rich: Not you. I was talking to them [laughter]. But thank you. I’m glad you’re ready, too.

Okay, so first of all why don’t you guys each take like 30 seconds to just explain who

you are and what you’re running for so everybody in the room knows.

Kate: Okay.

Moses: Kate, go ahead.

Kate: Thank you, Moses. Okay, good evening. I’m Kate Campanale. I’m the state representative

for 17th Worcester District, which represents Worcester and the southwest part of

Worcester. I’m glad to be back here again. I was here 2 years ago, and I want to thank

Doug for setting this and organizing this. I know it takes quite a bit of time, and I know

you’re one of the first meetings I’ve had when I got into office was with a group of you,

MassLandlords Association members, during my office hours. I’ve learned quite a bit

over the past 2 years, so I’m glad to be back here.

Rich: All right.

Moses: Well, good evening, everyone. I’m Moses Dixon. I’m the Democratic nominee for State

rep in the 17th Worcester District. Kate, it’s good to be with you tonight to talk about the

issues that are important to this group. I’ve met many of you a few years ago when I

worked for Veterans Inc as a housing specialist in trying to find housing for veterans, and

so it’s good to be with you tonight. I am here to learn from you and to see how we can

work together to address your issues and to find solutions going forward, so thank you.

Rich: Excellent, all right. So our first topic, the question is, is there any reason that a mandatory

rent escrow law should not be passed? What do you see as the major obstacles to a

mandatory rent escrow law and how can we overcome them?” Whichever one of you

wants to go first.

Moses: Go for it.

Kate: Okay, thank you. Here. I am in support of reforming the mandatory escrow law. What we

do, I mean first and foremost when you sign onto a rental application, the renter has the

responsibility of paying that rent. The landlord is responsible for keeping their property

up to code and safe housing. What we see this law has been put into place I think for two

reasons: (1) to keep landlords or some lords from taking advantage of tenants, and (2)

tenants from coming in and destroying their apartments and getting away with months of

free rent.

Taking a look at the law, I see that it may just be a simple change here and there is just

this one line here in the law, “the court, after hearing the case, may require the tenant or

occupant claiming under this section to provide the money into the escrow account.” It’s

that one word, “may.” If we can change that to “shall,” that will give the judge actually

more direction and the authority to require the renter to pay into the escrow account, and

I think that maybe a solution as well.

I also think part of an obstacle is also that we have so many reps and senators that are in

that 128 Belt barrier, who have different priorities, who are in an urban setting where

their constituency is more renters and may our priorities here than Central Mass are a bit

different.

Rich: All right.

Moses: So I would agree with some of what Miss Campanale said. I think obviously as a

landlord, you have a lot of regulations, a lot of obstacles, both in terms of in the process

of getting folks to rent your property but subsequently when you’re trying to evict a

tenant. I think part of the solution here is looking at how do we work together to figure

out a way that both parties can agree upon a payment system or plan or figuring out if the

cost for evicting someone is going to be a lot greater in terms of the rent that they actually

owe because oftentimes when you get to court, you’ve got to wait 3 months or more

before you can evict someone, and then you got to weigh the barriers. Is it more prudent

to get an escrow account, or is it more prudent just to count your losses and figure out a

way to make up for the back rent?

[0:05:08]

I think this is a partnership both for the tenant and the landlord to come and find common

ground, but I think working with all of you in figuring out and that’s why we’re here

tonight to have a conversation about what works best for you and what you see worked

best and what you see hasn’t worked best. I look forward to working with all of you if

I’m so fortunate enough to become the state rep. That is my answer to that and so thank

you.

Rich: You both brought up very good points as far as barriers, talking about a lot of renters in

other districts that might have an opinion about this sort of thing. I also like your idea,

Kate, about how it might be easier to change one word than it would be to pass an

entirely new law. Moses, you’re absolutely right that by the time you get to court, it

might not make sense to put together an escrow payment plan at all at that point. It might

make sense just to part ways.

Let me change the context of the question a little bit or add something to it. The

advantage to having a law that dictated that if a resident decided to withhold rent, now

because this is a necessary part of the law, right, because there are slumlords who

legitimately do not maintain the habitability standards that they were supposed to. Isn’t

that true, right? So the resident ought to have the right to withhold the rent. What happens

when someone withholds the rent and it’s not necessarily legitimate? Let me just finish

this, and I’ll give you both an opportunity to address it.

What happens is what if someone wanted to withhold the rent but they still had to pay it

into an escrow account, do you think that would eliminate the frivolous ones from

making it to court would be one aspect of it. Does that make sense? If someone just kind

of has fallen on hard times and they’re like, “Well maybe, I’ll just put a hole in my screen

and say that I’m just not paying the rent because the landlord is not taking care of the

place.” If they still had to put the money, if they still had to pay somebody, maybe they

would not be so enthusiastic about that plan

Secondarily and I think this is really something that gets overlooked. By the time we get

to housing court like Moses said, this not necessarily a swift process. If somebody

doesn’t pay the rent on October 1st, by the time we land in court, it’s the middle of

November, end of November, so they haven’t paid October, maybe I haven’t paid

November either, right. I’m sure that you can imagine that a lot of folks when the judge

says, “Okay, pay the rent and you can stay in the apartment.”

What do a lot of folks say?

“I don’t have the money anymore.” Can you see where that would happen? So if the

mandatory rent escrow were to take in effect anytime someone withheld the rent, then if

the judge said, “You have to pay the rent,” now the money gets paid and this family

doesn’t end up homeless.

There are a couple of added components to it.

If you could speak on that, Kate, and Moses can respond as well.

Moses: Sure.

Kate: Sure, yes. I definitely see that becomes a complicated situation and really a case-by- case

basis, and that’s where I do think that a judge has to come in and have his discretion on

the case and hopefully be able to move it forward.

Moses: Yeah. So you know I think what you’re getting at there is that there’s a lot of loopholes

where a tenant can potentially say that a landlord hasn’t taken care of a certain issue on

the property and I think that’s where it is extraordinarily important as landlords that you

have a clear and prudent paper trail in terms of when a tenant makes a claim that an issue

hasn’t been taken care of, and I think by keeping that paper trail and using that as a way

to hold them accountable for paying their rent, I think goes a long way. So I think

figuring out a way in terms of the law and making sure that paper trail is followed up in

court so that this loophole can’t be used ill-intended towards the great landlords that take

care of their property.

Rich: Did you hear that? He said that we are great landlords [laughter]. Well, that’s definitely

true in this group. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on that. We’re going

to move on to the next topic then, okay, which is another sore spot for us landlords. The

question is, is the financial burden placed on landlords by the so-called move and store

law in Massachusetts, is that necessary? What alternative approaches would you

consider?

[0:10:14]

Moses: Yes, so I’m happy to start with that. You know it’s a very tricky situation where (1) you

have a tenant that might not have paid rent and then you’re going through the hurdles to

try to get the back rent, and then subsequently when you come to a decision in terms of

evicting the tenant through the court system or by an agreement, particularly through the

court system, then you sometimes have the responsibility of basically storing their

belongings for 3 months or more and you have to pay for it the first 3 months.

[0:10:59]

And so I think the solution here is when you get to court, figure out a way with the judge

and the tenant to say, “Look, this is the amount of money you owe, but if you’re willing

to pay the 3 months that it’s going to cost to store your belongings, then not only will we

forgive the additional money that you owe because it’s a hassle to get it anyways but

having some sort of agreement where that you forgive the debt by the same token they’re

going to have to put up the 3 months for storing their belongings, so I think that is the

solution to that.

Obviously, I’m open to other discussions and other viewpoints on that, but I think that

could be a start to addressing that issue.

Rich: It’s a very interesting perspective. Kate, you can go ahead and address that.

Kate: Okay, thank you. Certainly, I believe move and store laws here in Massachusetts have to

be changed. I know myself have had to help a constituent with this and the case lasted

months from trying from the eviction process to the move and store to the housing court.

When you’re looking at a landlord like yourselves, I’m not sure how many of you have

had to go through this process, but you’ve already lost thousands of dollars from

nonpayment of rent, then you’re looking at you have to get a certified bonded mover and

storage, then you’re talking about 3 months of keeping the material, which is most often

what the rent left over as probably junk. That’s $3,000 to $5,000 a month.

I think some possible solutions here are looking at the bonding process, maybe only bond

items that may be deemed expensive or also I think realistically if we can scale it back,

Massachusetts has one of the longest terms as far as the 3 months. Let’s start by scaling

that back to maybe 1 month or 6 weeks and that maybe a good starting process. But I also

know one of my colleagues, Rep. Alan Silvia, had introduced a bill which also tried to

make a solution to this as categorizing the items the landlord had to opportunity to

categorize the items in the apartment and then was able to auction them off and be able to

actually keep that money. That was also something that could work as well.

Rich: Awesome! I love both of you seemed to have a good grasp of this and I can tell you we

really appreciate that. I love what you said, Kate, about maybe the landlord can profit

from auctioning the stuff off or maybe not profit but offset some of the loss because it’s

definitely in the thousands. By the time move and store kicks in like the ship has sunk a

long time ago.

Moses, I really like your creativity in what you said in making it a negotiation because

the tenants that got moved out, they’re not going to pay back the $3,000. Are they?

Audience: No.

Moses: No.

Rich: No, but what Moses is saying is if I understand correctly, is maybe negotiating say, “Look.

You pay a couple of months and help me out a little bit and I’ll forget about the $3,000

that I’ll never going to get from you anyhow and at least get something rather than

nothing.” Was that the essence of what you said?

Moses: Yeah.

Rich: I like your creativity on both counts and of course reducing, it would be nice to reduce the

law to 1 month instead of 3 as well. You guys have any other comments on that before

we move along?

[0:15:03]

Moses: No.

Rich: Okay, all right, so the next question is shorter. Should property owners, should landlords

have the absolute right to subdivide their own properties? Which one of you would like to

go first?

Moses: [unintelligible 0:15:17].

Kate: Thank you.

Rich: You guys are really good at this.

Kate: [laughter] Okay. First, I think I’m most concerned about the term, absolute right. I think

absolute comes with a certain slippery slope, and I think there needs to be some sort of

local control as far as zoning and working with code enforcement as well. Really I see

that in some locations, there may be the affordable housing is an issue, but I have a

concern with such things as 40B coming in and saying that your community has to have

so much affordable housing. I think it takes a lot of control again away from the cities

and towns. The citizens of that town have the right to show where they want their town to

grow or possibly in some communities not grow as well.

Moses: Yes, so I think obviously I think this is a zoning issue and I think looking at the

prospective communities whether it’s in the towns or the city, urban settings where

there’s a greater demand for more housing particularly around our college areas where

we have a lot of students that rely upon housing while they’re studying, so I think

working both with the municipalities and the cities and town, figuring out a way what

works best for your community. And so obviously, this is an issue that I’m willing to

learn more about and to learn with you, to figure out a way what works best with you.

I think this goes back to what cities and towns zone out and making sure that obviously

code enforcement is followed so that we are looking out for everybody’s safety, so this I

something I’m certainly going to look into more.

Rich: Absolutely! Zoning is definitely important. You don’t want somebody building a factory

in the middle of a neighborhood. That’s an extreme example. Of course, building code

and all of those things are absolutely important.

I’m just going to give a quick anecdote because it happened last week. I had a property

under contract to single-family house in the City of Southbridge and it’s a 3,000-square

foot two-story house in the middle of a rental community. The whole neighborhood is

triple deckers like it’s a low-income renters. The City of Southbridge told me I could not

make it a duplex, even though I think it was originally built that way because it didn’t

have a 156 feet of frontage and the setbacks weren’t enough and the lot wasn’t big

enough.

Now instead of that becoming two houses, it might really be one and realistically it might

be zero because somebody might not be able to buy it and profit from it, so it might sit

there vacant like for years. I think the spirit of this question is if somebody owns a

property and as long as they are within the building codes and safety and all of those

things, should the property owner have the right within boundaries, perhaps not absolute

that is kind of a scary word. Should the property owner have the right as long as they

comply with the rest of these things to subdivide their own properties when it’s

something like adding one unit? I mean not turning a house in the middle of a subdivision

into a 16-unit, so nothing extreme.

This is really a long way of asking a short question. I’m really good at that [laughter].

Based on that, would you consider a law that allowed property owners to divide their

properties I guess without running into those problems? Is there a way around that at the

state level?

Moses: My first thought on this is that we have a bureaucracy, so if it’s okay on the local level, it

might not be okay on the state level, and if it’s not okay on the state level, then we’ve got

an issue with the federal level. I think if this word absolute is a word that is in the gray

areas there, so I think figuring out a way on the state level to work with you guys to

figure this out because as you said if this property is going to be empty, it’s not in use and

potentially not good for the neighborhood that it’s in, I think we’ve got to figure out a

way to make sure that it works for everybody.

[0:20:26]

Kate: Okay.

Rich: Is there anything you want to add, Kate?

Kate: Sure. My thought again is to keep the local control. I don’t think there’s really a state law

that would just pile on another regulation where hopefully you would well in this instance

and I’m sure there are many instances like this across the state, you’d be able to work

with the planning board and zoning board and go to a town or town meeting or also the

city and be able to work with them around these parameters.

Rich: Sure. In favor of keeping it local?

Kate: Keeping it local. Correct.

Rich: Definitely, I understand that. Okay, next topic. How can we get a long-term plan for

highway and rail infrastructure that gives Worcester as landlords access to tenants that

work in Boston and gives Boston access to Worcester’s less expensive housing?

Kate: Well, I think this is always an issue that’s been brought up for many years, and it’s one

that we’ve been working on for many years. I know we’re working, the MBTA right now

we’re working on fixing this problem. I think that’s what we need to start with first is

fixing the problems we already have.

This year, we have introduced some more express train service directly from Worcester

to Boston. I know there is one in the morning and one coming back in the evening, and I

know there is a push for more. However, there is a bigger issue there, too, where if we do

want more express lines, we’re going to need a second rail service just because of the

stops and the train schedule on one rail is almost impossible to keep multiple express

trains. When you get that far, we’re talking about add a lot more capital. That’s quite a

big timeframe but certainly I think it’s something we can work on but right now, I think

we need to work on fixing the problems that we have.

Rich: Okay.

Moses: Yeah. I would have to agree. I mean the City of Worcester and Central Mass is booming

with a lot of activity, a lot of infrastructure, economic development going on, and we

want to be able to capitalize on that, so I think definitely (1), making sure that rail system,

the express trains from the City of Worcester to Boston are increased and not only that

upgrading the infrastructure, or if it’s adding another rail or two to accomplish that, I

think that’s what we have to do, but I think making sure that we’ve got funding to be able

to do that is extraordinarily important. I think that is a way that both the City of

Worcester can capitalize on folks from Boston and Boston can capitalize on folks from

the City of Worcester would certainly be beneficial.

Rich: It sounds like there’s a lot involved in making that happen. Okay, so moving on the

quicker question. Should landlords be allowed to charge a late fee if rent is not paid on

the first?

Moses: I’ll start with this one. I think if you have a tenant that is I will say a person who pays

late constantly and if it’s in the contract that after a certain date, there’s going to be a late

fee, I think I don't know if that is a requirement in Massachusetts right now to basically

ask a tenant for a late fee, but I think if by a certain date just like when you pay your

mortgage and if you don’t pay it by a certain date, there is a late fee. So I think looking at

that as a possible solution I think will address this issue.

Rich: Okay. Kate?

Kate: I know the 30 days that you have to in order to charge a late fee right now is probably a bit

too long. I think looking at more maybe a 15-day grace period is a little more reasonable.

Rich: Yeah [applause]. Yeah. That’s how you know you have the right answer [laughter]. You

know what I mean you guys mentioned it. Banks charge late fees if the mortgage

payment is late and it’s not probably I mean banks love to charge fees. They really enjoy

it a great deal, but it’s probably not because the bank is short on cash and they need an

extra $35 because your $4,500 mortgage payment came in a day late. It’s really more as a

deterrent, and in Massachusetts, we lack that deterrent.

Should the threshold for lead poisoning be reduced from 25 micrograms per deciliter,

mcg/dl – you guys have your calculators out – to 10 mcg/dl, even if it increases caseload

by 10 times?

Kate: Okay, sure. I mean this is quite a technical question and certainly one more for probably

be experts at DEP, but lead poisoning obviously is a serious issue, but I do think we’re

going to probably in extreme here with this regulation, but I also know that your input is

valid as well and I know when this regulation first came out that they didn’t come to the

important stakeholders. But, correct me, I believe there were some hearings earlier this

month that you were able to partake in and hopefully those led to some better solutions.

Rich: Okay, Moses.

Moses: So I think part of the solution here is not really looking at the percent of the lead but

looking at ways that we as state government and local government can work with

landlords that do have a problem with this to make sure that we’re giving you the support

in terms of either funding from the state or from the federal government to make sure that

the families with these kids that live in these properties will have the adequate support to

give you to make sure your properties are up to code. I think part of the solution is trying

to find ways to help you address this issue and not put another burden on you.

Rich: All right, so the next one. Is it fair to fine a landlord $35,000 for discrimination?

Moses: So I don't know all of the nuances around this regulation, but I would say that each case I

would presume would be different, and so I can’t speak to the legality of each case. But I

do know that it does seem a bit high and obviously I’m looking to hear from you and to

work with you to figure out what works best and to make sure that folks are not using the

system as a loophole to just basically try to game the system, so this is more conversation

to have to make sure that (1) the tenant is in agreement and also the landlord is not going

to be gamed by the system with this law.

Kate: Sure. We don’t want discrimination anywhere, but I think $35,000 is a pretty excessive

fine and just an example of the attorney-general probably overstepping as she usually

does. I mean this is where people are trying to make – someone makes an honest mistake

and I know there are people that are out there, just trying to get tenants and it hurts your

business. I was reading some of the case studies here where you have one person coming

in and you shook their hand but you didn’t shake the next person’s hand that came to

view the apartment and now all of a sudden you have a discrimination case against you,

so I think this is very excessive.

Rich: Thank you. I believe this is the last one. Should a landlord who acted in good faith be

fined three times the amount of a security deposit because they made a paperwork error,

sort of piggybacking on this last one?

Moses: Yeah, I think that is in my opinion a bit much as well. I think making sure that (1) the

paperwork is done properly and on time before any agreement, but I think in short I think

that is a bit much.

Kate: Okay. Again I think this is pretty, pretty excessive. I mean there are requirements just for

the paperwork here and pretty intensive, and if anyone just makes an honest mistake, to

be fined triple damages is quite excessive. I do think we tend to go overboard sometimes

and punish people that are making innocent mistake.

Rich: No [laughter]. It might happen from time to time. We have a couple of minutes left. If

each one of you will take a minute and have any closing remarks, anything that came into

mind regarding those questions or anything else you’d like to say about your candidacy.

Kate went last, so Moses you can go first this time.

[0:30:19]

Moses: Yeah. Well, first I want to thank you for moderating tonight’s discussion and I want to

thank the members of the association for giving me the opportunity to come and

participate in some of the issues that you have some concerns about and some issues that

you want to find solutions to. And so, I’m someone that is going to be accessible,

accountable, and available to you if the voters so choose to elect me a in few weeks as the

state rep for the 17th Worcester District. In short, I look forward to working with you and

thank you again for having me.

Kate: Again, thank you very much for coming out tonight and listening to us and for your input

as well and moderating. I learned some more issues but looking forward to my next term

and getting through some more legislation, trying to get some of these passed, things that

we’ve already been working on, and I look forward to working with you. Thank you.

Rich: Excellent! Let’s give these guys a big round of applause [applause].

[End 0:31:50]

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