The Massachusetts Senate Special Commission on Housing has asked its members to come up with some ideas to create affordable housing in Massachusetts. Private landlords could easily put many affordable units on the market. Some of these are already built but unavailable, others can be rehabbed, and still more can be created from existing stock.
Already Available: Occupancy by Four or More Unrelated Persons
The SJC decided on May 15, 2013 that modernized apartments could be rented to four unrelated students, and that this did not constitute an illegal lodging house (City of Worcester v. College Hill Properties, LLC, et al).
Problem: Cities like Worcester and Boston continue to enforce local ordinances prohibiting four or five unrelated occupants even if units meet square footage, egress, and other critical safety criteria. They do this merely because they are afraid of college student density, which on rare occasions creates noise or other problems.
Non-legislative recommendation: Provide resources to challenge these cities in court and obtain a broad ruling permitting safe, respectful occupancy.
Likely benefit: 20-25% greater availability of housing for students and recent graduates.
Already Available: Rework the Eviction Process
Under current laws, especially MGL Ch. 239 Sections 4 and 8A, the eviction process carries great foreboding and the possibility of multi-month and ten-thousand dollar costs. Rumours circulate, like “the mother of the Worcester Police Chief refuses to rent her upstairs because she’s afraid of getting a bad tenant she can’t evict.”
Problem: Our review of thousands of court cases show that each housing court each month awards $500,000 of judgments for unpaid rent to local landlords, that the average case takes 2.5 months from the first day of non-payment, and that tenants taking full advantage of their legal remedies will cost the landlord 5x the monthly rent.
Legislative recommendation: Mandate rent escrow during habitability disputes. Lower the cost of storing an evicted tenant’s belongings.
Likely benefit: Thousands of units monthly will be turned over to the market faster. Tenants who can no longer afford their apartments will move more quickly into appropriate housing. Units held vacant out of fear will get filled.
Rehab: Accelerate the Process of Receivership for Foreclosures
When a landlord can no longer maintain a property in rentable condition, they may walk away from it and leave the keys with the bank. But the banks may be loath to foreclose because then they must pay for maintenance, etc. So the buck stops with the local municipality, which will board up the building, shut off utilities, and mow the lawn (maybe).
Problem: In Worcester, there are ~400 buildings representing ~1,000 units currently boarded up in various stages of foreclosure and receivership. It is similar in other Gateway cities.
Non-legislative recommendation: Rework the processes used by inspectional services and the attorney general’s office to accelerate receivership.
Likely benefit: Thousands of affordable units in gateway cities will be rehabbed for a fraction of new construction costs and turned over at auction to responsible landlords.
New: Right to Subdivide w/o regard to Zoning, Parking or Basement/Attic
Municipalities subject subdivision to review by zoning and planning boards.
Problem: They can stop a landlord from subdividing a large apartment into two smaller, more affordable units. They can impose moratoriums on conversion of basement and attic units, even those made safe by architectural redesign for two means of egress. They can stop new construction even near bus routes or rail if it does not meet their minimum parking requirements.
Recommendation: The Boston Globe (January 31, 2015) and Small Property Owners Association Newsletter (May 2015) both published recommendations allowing landlords to create safe housing that makes better use of interior space and relies on public transportation instead of parking.
Likely benefit: Tens of thousands of safe units will be created in urban areas. These units will be more affordable than existing stock because they are smaller. Community character can be preserved through small landlords creating affordable apartments.