The Massachusetts real estate industry has lost a one-of-a-kind voice. Sandra Katz managed over 300 units in Worcester, provided low-barrier housing to many of the region’s needy, and was a key figure in restructuring the local Worcester Property Owners Association into what is now a state-wide MassLandlords, Inc.
Sandra passed away July 27, 2019, working until the last to create better rental housing. Her counsel and outsized personality will be missed by the hundreds in the industry who knew her, including landlords, tenants, service providers, nonprofit renter advocates, and state legislators, not to mention her many friends, her family, and MassLandlords members, staff, and volunteers.
“Vibrant Spitfire of a Woman”
Perhaps no one summarizes Sandra better than did her niece, Tema Staig, in the final post for Sandra’s Facebook account. “She was a vibrant spitfire of a woman, with a deep sense of community, duty, and love for her family.”
Sandra wasn’t eager to fly into combat, but when she decided to fight, she flew full throttle. Although many of her renters obtained housing from her easily, without being disqualified due to their housing barriers, those who did not make the best use of their one chance will remember her as a difficult landlord intolerant of any perceived moral failing.
Sandra’s polarizing nature may best be illustrated by her own words. On July 21, 2016, after spending the morning in Housing Court, she sat for an interview with MassLandlords Executive Director Doug Quattrochi.
Sandra said, “It was a great day in housing court. I can’t always say that but today was one victory after another.
“We had a tenant whom the judge finally recognized was simply lying through his teeth. He kept saying he had this amount of money. Then there was supposed to be money coming from an agency. She [the judge] wants to know what happened to the missing money. He basically said he spent it.
“She was unhappy with his disingenuousness, which is exactly how she put it. She was upset that he was putting his tenancy and his children’s safety at risk, and she said, ‘We’re done.’
“This was the part that I almost gave a hurrah. I didn’t, I really composed myself. She said, ‘By the time they have the truck ready to roll, if you don’t have every penny — not partial, all of it — you’re done.’
“And it was ‘whoopee!’ time,” Sandra laughed freely. “I walked out of there. I walked out of the courtroom into the lobby, and I said [to him], ‘Start packing. We’re going to be ready.’ ”
Sandra was a regular force in Housing Court, there weekly for years.
“I feel like I should bring a cot in. Give me a room. I’ll move in,” she joked.
For those who remember her, this was Sandra. Willing to give anyone a chance, but quick to take that chance back and give it to someone more deserving. Sandra always kept a sense of humor about what is, in the end, dark business in a world with not enough housing.
When asked if she felt like she had ever evicted a tenant unjustly, her answer was certainly not.
“No. I really do follow the law. I don’t like going into housing court not having my docs lined up. It is very costly to my owners. In some situations when I know what the circumstances are, I say to them, I will try to work with you. You have to give me something. You can’t just not pay me anything. That’s not going to work,” she said.
Under Sandra’s instruction, QPM Services would routinely extend flexible payment plans to renters, many of whom remained stable paying on the 10th, twice a month, or on other sympathetic arrangements. One renter made partial payments for over a year before finally getting caught up, and remains stably housed today, surely a testament to Sandra’s pursuit of justice.
Sandra fought for actual justice, in the original sense of the word, not as warped by advocacy groups today that would put the word housing first, as if justice itself were somehow inadequate.
When asked about the security deposit law, and triple damages for paperwork violations, Sandra was characteristically irreverent.
“Why anybody thinks that that’s fair… So you didn’t put down the address of the bank. ‘Oh, shoot me!’ The address? I’m sorry. So you’re going to get me for treble damages on something like that? It just doesn’t make any sense. The laws are just weighted against us.”
A Staunch Advocate for Reform
Our elected officials might agree with the spitfire description, for their own reasons. When it came to housing policy, Sandra offered a strong and definitive rejection of landlord-tenant law crafted without owner input. Sandra felt strongly that renter advocacy groups now worked more to sustain their own existence than to free renters from the cycle of poverty.
“You know what, I’ve said this before and I’m sorry if I insult somebody here, but there’s a lot of money in poverty.”
Sandra lauded tough landlords who could achieve social results, like Ray Mariano, who turned around the Worcester Housing Authority. Was it safe to visit those properties before Ray took over?
“No. Not unless you have a Gatling gun with you or a bodyguard,” Sandra chuckled. “He turned that whole thing around. But he tried to institute the ‘A Better Life’ program and those wonderful people at HUD [said no]. Why would you be opposed to helping people lift themselves up?”
Sandra attended many public hearings. She strongly supported both MassLandlords and the Massachusetts REALTORS Association, and wished for our two organizations to collaborate closely on policy.
Should MassLandlords adopt a continuing education requirement like the REALTORS?
“I think it would be good if we could,” she said. “The more training landlords have, the more education we have, the more we’re seen as being responsible as opposed to the picture that’s been painted that we’re a bunch of greedy SOBs, which always rankles me because I know what I put into my property. The more education we can have, the better I think it is for us.”
No description of Sandra’s rental business would be complete without acknowledgement that she was one of only a few landlords in town who would take you when all others said no. Sandra worked with every subsidy administrator, every program, and every type of renter.
“They’re going off the cliff and they say, ‘Would you please save me on the way down?’”
Sandra’s answer was usually yes. “To a large degree, yeah unless it’s so far gone…”
“I have a great relationship with the Worcester Housing Authority. I think they do a terrific job, and I think you get much more from them than you do from a lot of the other organizations. Some people that you call, some of these organizations, you never get to talk to anybody. It’s one of the frustrations that we have. Voicemail, voicemail, voicemail, all the time. It’s that kind of frustration that we have with some of the agencies that don’t take it to the next level.”
Rarely a Vacation
Sandra answered many of her property management calls personally, and gave largely of her time and energy to renters and other owners. She encouraged calls usually at 6:30 or 7 in the morning, and she could be reached any time of the day or night, including when renters with a special disability or medical condition called her at 2am just because they needed someone to talk to.
“She was such a wonderful woman and a wealth of knowledge,” says MassLandlords member Michelle. “She helped me personally on many occasions. She took time from her busy schedule and met with me to give me some guidance.”
With the exception of an occasional trip to visit her niece in California, or to see Israel, or most recently, a rainy, tired weekend at the Cape, there was no holiday break, no weekend, no retirement for Sandra Katz. She gave her all to a business that, in the end, housed thousands and thousands of people. And she took little from it, but a house of her own.
“We’re truly blessed,” she said of owning her own home.
She didn’t even prefer to own her car, instead leasing many of her vehicles over the years. “I’m contributing to the economy,” she would say about all manner of hiring or paying for service.
A Long and Meaningful Life
Too short, in a real sense, but Sandra wasted no time. Her life’s trajectory began with her father and his private homeless shelter, after which she got a Master of Arts in social work, worked in child welfare for 17 years, recovered from burn-out at a printing company, and eventually joined her brother in Massachusetts real estate. Her capstone achievements were Quality Property Management Services, and the restructuring of the Worcester Property Owners Association.
Early Homeless Sheltering
Sandra recollected her earliest housing memories in New York, before there was public shelter.
“My dad set up this buzzer system, so at 3 o’clock in the morning, [the police would] hit that buzzer and they’d knock on the window because we were on the first level. They would knock on the door and they’d say, ‘Louie!’ that was my father’s name, ‘Louie! We need your help.’
“So my father would say, ‘Oh, a room to rent!’ So he’d get up and he’d get dressed and there was usually somebody who was inebriated or whatever, and so he would rent a room there.
“There was one situation where the police had gotten a report that someone had passed away in one of the rooms. They hit that buzzer, they got my father. They got the coroner, and so – God help me, my father — they got the person out, and my father just changed the linen, turned over the bed, and before you knew it, the police said, ‘Okay, we’ve got another candidate for you!’ And he said, ‘Okay!’
“Some of that entrepreneurial spirit clearly sort of resides in his daughter,” she said.
Child Welfare Social Work
Sandra started her own career as a child welfare social worker for New York City.
“I worked some of the most difficult neighborhoods in New York. I would go into a lot of the neighborhoods and I would have to deal with child welfare and making sure that families were intact. I’d have to refer them over to preventive services and that kind of thing.”
As part of her work, Sandra was unionized.
“It was the dumbest union going,” she said. “We went on strike for no money. I mean it was just stupid and we all got arrested, so I spent the weekend in jail. I called up my father and he said, ‘I’m not bailing you out. You made a stupid mistake! Why would you go out and strike for no money?’ ” Sandra laughed lightheartedly at the recollection. “I have that background, boots on the ground.”
Sandra worked in child welfare for 17 years. “It wears you down,” she said.
Social Work Leave of Absence in Sales
Sandra took a leave of absence to recharge from child welfare, trying something totally different: sales at a print company. Her success, and her joy in sharing each sale with her brother, led to extending their family relationship into a professional relationship.
Her brother was in real estate, and Sandra worked hard to find connections that would eventually lead to her assisting her brother, managing properties, and bringing her sister up from the Jersey Shore. She worked with her sister, and eventually they brought their mother up to Massachusetts, as well.
The connections she needed were found in a local landlord group.
Worcester Property Owners Association
As member and eventually President of the Worcester Property Owners Association, Sandra genuinely delighted in helping inexperienced owners learn the ropes.
“There was a meeting with Judge Martin, and I think that we hoped to sensitize him to landlord issues, but there was a woman who in all innocence, all innocence, said, ‘I don’t rent to families with children because I don’t have a delead certificate.’ The place exploded, absolutely exploded.
“Judge Martin, I thought, was going to have an absolute heart attack at that meeting.” Sandra laughed at the memory. “He said, ‘Oh, my gosh! Please don’t ever come into my court because that wouldn’t be good.’ Then she realized afterwards. Somebody took her aside.”
(In Massachusetts, landlords cannot refuse to rent to a family with children if there are lead hazards; we must delead.)
In 2008, Sandra’s sales skills snagged a new member who was considering alternatively membership in the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.
“She was the first person I talked to when I moved to Worcester. I emailed her asking if I should join GBREB or WPOA,” said MassLandlords Executive Director Doug Quattrochi. “She didn’t say anything bad about GBREB, but she did say a lot about the WPOA and the educational meetings they were having. It was really just what I needed.”
Breakfast at Sandra’s
It was clear that there was a need to combine landlord resources across the state. The Massachusetts Rental Housing Association (MRHA) was in decline from its very successful peak years. The Northern Worcester County Landlord Association (NWCLA) was independent, and the WPOA were wondering why they and the 20 other clubs around Massachusetts were still paying dues to MRHA if they were getting little for it.
Sandra arranged for a meeting between WPOA, MRHA, and NWCLA leadership. After that meeting, it was clear that a new approach was needed.
In 2013, Sandra hosted Sunday breakfasts at her home weekly for months on end.
“I remember many nights and weekends at her home with the board of directors re-writing by-laws and developing the political policy,” said Rich Trifone, Worcester volunteer and along with Sandra, MassLandlords cofounder.
Week after week, month after month, the status quo was questioned and revamped. The WPOA tax exempt status, bylaws, and even the model of being entirely civic, with no paid staff, were reviewed, reaffirmed, or slated for membership vote. The end result was a new organization, still called the Worcester Property Owners Association, but with new bylaws, a broader social mission, and a plan for dramatic change.
With the savings accumulated under Sandra’s and past presidents’ careful financial management, the WPOA purchased the MassLandlords.net domain and hired a professional website designer. They embarked on a paid staff model. And when the Southern Worcester County Landlord Association asked how things were going, they shared with SWCLA the idea of working together. The rest is recent history.
Sandra stepped down from leadership after a careful transition. Most of her board continued on as the new state-wide board. Sandra remained active politically and was a huge supporter of MassLandlords, in terms of dues, donations, event attendance, and developing our new services including RentHelper.
In our 2016 interview, Sandra’s parting thoughts ring true today as they did then.
“You need to be very mindful of what ownership means. I’ve been in business, my own business for about 18, 20 years. I’ve been in real estate since 1983. It’s a good business. You need to know what you need to know. The organization is where you need to be if you’re going to be in the income property business. I strongly urge everybody, who is within [range of] my voice, to please consider becoming a member of the MassLandlords association.”
Sandra’s departure leaves us in disbelief that she is gone. To our most passionate advocate, our most irreverent speaker, and our most reliable source of advice and humor, we will miss you Sandra, and in memory of your voice, we are silent.