Yadan Zhao found out from a neighbor in June that the rundown Chinatown rowhouse where she rents an apartment was up for sale, and she would likely be evicted.
Her neighbors recommended she seek help from the non-profit Chinatown Community Land Trust. The group rushed to tour the building and then offered more than a million dollars to buy it — more, they believed, than other bidders were offering.
But it was to no avail. The same day, the landlord accepted a bid on the building from a private buyer for $1.1 million cash. And now Zhao waits for an eviction from the one-bedroom apartment she’s shared with her husband and three children for a decade.
For five years, housing advocates have been trying to eliminate this kind of quick turnaround sale through passage of legislation called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). That proposal would require landlords to notify tenants of their intent to sell, and give them 30 days to make a bid for the building. If they could not manage the purchase on their own, they could designate a community organization to buy it.
Had this law been in effect, Zhao told GBH News through an interpreter, “the landlord would have had to come to us and we’d have known [he was selling] instead of finding out afterward.”
Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust, said the sale of Zhao’s building demonstrates why community groups need to be empowered to compete to buy rental properties in Boston.
“We had hoped that we could buy it and explained to the owner that if he sold to us, we would buy it as is and work to keep the tenants in place,” she said. “And that he might have a feeling about helping to stabilize the community.” The landlord didn’t respond to calls for comment.
But efforts to pass TOPA on Beacon Hill have stalled, largely because landlord groups oppose the length of time the legislation would provide for community organizations to step in and raise money to buy buildings. The most recent draft of the bill could allow 30 days for residents to make a bid for the property and then another 120 days to secure financing, meaning landlords would have to wait up to five months to close a sale.
Opponents have long said the amount of time between an offer and closing would create a barrier for new construction.
The state legislature approved the bill in January 2021, but Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed it days later, saying “I am concerned that making multifamily sales transactions less predictable will result in less investment and construction of fewer rental units.”
A similar law has been in effect in Washington D.C. since 1980, with more than 4,300 affordable housing units saved by tenants as of 2018. New York’s legislature is also considering a version of TOPA.
"Our whole life is here. My husband, I don't know how he would get to work, this is where he catches his van ride to the restaurant."Yadan Zhao, Chinatown Resident
The TOPA model was born because community land trusts and community development corporations (CDCs) were trying to step in on sales, and were struggling.
“We were hearing that it is hard for them coming in as an outside third party to work with existing owners when they intend to sell buildings,” said Jon Seward of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act Coalition, which has been advocating for the legislation.
This has happened several times at Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust. “We've made an offer on a property and the landlord doesn't have to respond,” said executive director Meridith Levy. “They can sell to whomever they want to. There's nothing, no incentive for them to sell to us, even when we're offering market rate.”
And when the building is sold to a private company, long-time residents often face unaffordable rent increases.
Every inch of Zhao’s third-floor walk-up is used, with two-by-fours separating the single bedroom into four tiny sleeping spots. The landlord just raised the rent from $1,150 to $1,500 a month, an effort Zhao, 40, said is to force her out.
"I don't think we have a lot of tools to stop disruption of neighborhoods and the conversion from middle-class housing to luxury condos."State Senator Pat Jehlen
Zhao’s husband takes home just over $2,000 a month cooking at restaurants while she looks after the children, so their budget is already stretched thin. Still, they want to stay, knowing their options are limited elsewhere.
“Our whole life is here. My husband, I don’t know how he would get to work, this is where he catches his van ride to the restaurant,” she said. Her children go to school nearby.
Representatives Jay Livingstone and Rob Consalvo along with Senator Pat Jehlen reintroduced the TOPA legislation in March 2021.
“I don't think we have a lot of tools to stop disruption of neighborhoods and the conversion from middle-class housing to luxury condos,” said Jehlen. She said TOPA would help take property off the speculative market and keep it permanently affordable.
But for more than a year, the Joint Committee on Housing under co-chairman Sen. John Keenan sat on the bill. Keenan said the commitee was prioritizing pandemic-related legislation.
Keenan, who is a landlord, said one of the main concerns with TOPA was how long a sale would take. “I think there's a place for it, but it has to be a proper balance from a landlord's perspective,” he said. “If a landlord received a market value offer from a CDC or an eligible organization … why wouldn't the landlord sell it to those buyers?”
Keenan said as long as the process is “comparable,” landlords would have no reason not to sell to CDCs, who could keep the property affordable.
To appease landlords, the sponsors added amendments intended to eliminate some of the opposition. Exemptions were created for the first three years after a building is built; transfers after deaths; single homes and condos; and owner-occupied buildings of up to four units, among other things. The amendments also reduced the time between signing the purchase agreement and closing from 160 to 120 days.
The changes proposed are just “tinkering around the edges,” said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of Mass Landlords. “In a normal market, the process is 30 days from offer to closing. If they've reduced the time from 160 to 120 days for financing, they're still four times normal.”
Levy acknowledged the time criticism. “One of the complaints about TOPA we've heard from landlords is the money gets tied up for too long,” she said. But some community development corporations, she said, could turn around a property in 60 days because they’re organized and set up to do it.
"The prices being offered were exactly the same. But the owner chose the for-profit. And after they closed, rents were raised and many did have to leave."Sheila Dillon, Boston Housing Chief
In June 2022, the bill was reported favorably out of committee with one vote, without Keenan's support. Keenan also wrote up his own version of the bill. The legislature adjourned without final action on the legislation.
“It’s unfortunate that the bill was held in committee for so long, and we'll just have to work harder to get an earlier report next term,” said Livingstone.
Consalvo said he believes bridges can be built with landlords to reach a compromise. “I think that we need to roll up our sleeves and do that with these groups,” he said. He also said legislators needed to better highlight the fact that TOPA is meant to be a local option, not a mandate. “Some of the members might have felt this might not be an effective tool for their town, but they don't have to opt-in on it,” he said. For his district in Boston, it’s “1000% the right fit,” he added.
In Consalvo’s former city council district, TOPA could have had a dramatic impact when AP Fairlawn LLC decided in 2018 to sell the 350-unit Mattapan Fairlawn Apartments, a complex that has primarily housed low-income, Black and brown residents since the 1960s.
The group Preservation of Affordable Housing made an attempt to buy the complex to keep tenants in place, but instead the DSF Group of Waltham acquired the buildings, and rebranded them as the “SoMA apartments at the T.”
Residents told GBH since then, their rents have gone up exponentially and many people have been priced out.
Annie Gordon spent the past 49 years at Fairlawn, and raised her children there. Since 2019, her rent went from $1,810 to $2,100, but she hasn’t signed a lease or paid the difference. Every month she gets a bill with the accrued amount and worries about where she would go if she were evicted.
“I would probably start off in a shelter, if I couldn't get into senior apartments I applied for,” Gordon, 71, said. She’s been waiting on a list for more affordable senior housing since 2017. Gordon is part of the tenant association at Fairlawn, but said DSF has had little communication with residents in three years. DSF did not reply to requests for comment.
“We requested meeting after meeting, even went to their headquarters in downtown Boston, and they still will not even acknowledge us. In that sense, you don't know what they're thinking or what they might do,” Gordon said.
In the meantime, Gordon has gone back to work part-time at a Walmart, working 6 a.m. shifts, because her social security income and pension amount to $1,845 monthly. But she wants to stay, and she wishes POAH could have bought the building to ease her worries.
“We’re still here because we loved, you know, the area. I’m just minutes away from medical care, my church, my doctors, my family,” she said.
Boston Housing Chief Sheila Dillon thinks the Fairlawn sale was a prime example of where TOPA could have worked, and the repercussions were significant because a community group couldn’t buy.
“The prices being offered were exactly the same. But the owner chose the for-profit. And after they closed, rents were raised and many did have to leave,” said Dillon.
She called TOPA a “very, very good idea,” and said there are no downsides because the seller gets a fair price, and longtime residents get to stay in their homes.