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Boston's Chief of Housing on new housing protections

New Housing Proposals Aim To Protect Elders, Low-Income Families From Displacement

Marty Walsh
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
Elise Amendola/AP
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Boston's Chief of Housing on new housing protections

It's no secret that housing is tight in Boston, and that means soaring rents that often displace longtime tenants. The administration of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is laying out a series of measures to provide rent relief, especially for elderly people. Sheila Dillon is the chief of housing and director of neighborhood development for the city of Boston. She spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard about Walsh’s proposals. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Barbara Howard: One of the proposals would ban no-fault evictions for those who are over the age 75. Have you been seeing a lot of these kinds of evictions?

Sheila Dillon: Too many, especially when buildings are changing hands. A new owner comes in, they've paid a lot for a property, and they are saying to the existing tenants, 'We're either going to empty out the building because we’re going to do extensive renovations,' or, 'We want a different type of tenant.' We are seeing too many elders being asked to leave homes that they've been in for decades. So we're saying that, 'Hey new owner, you can't ask a person over 75 years old to leave unless you have a good cause, a just cause, like they haven't paid their rent or they're destroying the property.'

Howard: Another one of the proposals you have is also targeting those over-75 renters. For those tenants, landlords can only raise the rent by 5 percent per year, according to the proposal. Is that a big problem too, those huge rent increases?

Dillon: Yes, landlords raise the rents so high that an elder can't afford it. So we're saying, if you're going to ask someone to leave, you have to have a good reason for it. And we're going to limit rent increases to 5 percent per year.

Howard: Now, people are going to hear this when they hear about limits on how much you can raise your rents for landlords, and they're going to scream, 'Isn't that rent control?' We once did have rent control in Boston. Is that what we're returning to?

Dillon: Some people will say that, but these elders need our protection.

Howard: With the increases that we're seeing in rents in Boston, we're also seeing families, not just elders, in trouble, like potentially losing their homes. Are they able to represent themselves in court to preserve their homes?

Dillon: So what this bill would do, our Right to Counsel bill, is low-income families going into housing court can ask the state for representation. Right now, only between 6 and 9 percent of folks going into housing court are legally represented, and we know that folks that have legal representation do better in housing courts. Our goal is to make sure that low-income families keep their apartments.

Howard: So let's talk about linkage, and explain what that is. It's been in place for a long time, requiring developers who are building properties to earmark some of the project money to housing and to job training. It's all based on the size of the project. So for each square foot built right now, the developer contributes a bit over $9 for housing and about a $1.78 for job training. Tell me a bit more about that.

Dillon: Boston's had a very successful linkage program now for decades. We've built a lot of affordable housing. Linkage has a big part to play.

Howard: But the linkage is a rigid formula. Talk to me about how you would like to change that.

Dillon: So with linkage right now, we can increase the square foot charge every three years, and we have to base that increase on the consumer price index. So what we're saying to the state is, Boston would like to have the authority to increase, and potentially decrease, when we see fit. And we are not going to do this recklessly. We're not going to raise it so high that it's going to impact commercial development because it's really important that we continue to develop commercial properties in Boston. But we want to extract as much as we can from them to build more affordable housing.

Howard: But you cannot do this on your own as the city of Boston, you need the state legislature to cooperate, is that right?

Dillon: That’s right. Our linkage program, unlike other cities and towns in Massachusetts, was established through state statute. So we have to go to the state and ask for amendments.

Howard: A home rule petition is what we're talking about here?

Dillon: Yes, this is a home rule petition, exactly right.

Howard: Mayor Marty Walsh did file housing bills with the legislature last session. They pretty much ended up going nowhere. So how does the city intend to get this package of reforms passed?

Dillon: Well, we've got three revenue bills and three tenant protection bills. And what's different this year is that we have been working with lots of organizations, groups, individuals to put our legislative package agenda together and we're building very strong coalitions. We're going to the State House and we're saying, this time everybody's on board. Boston wants to see these bills passed. So I think we're going to have a lot of success this year.

Howard: That's Sheila Dillon, chief of housing and director of neighborhood development for the city of Boston.

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