PHOTO BY DAN SCHNEIDER
After months of continuous organizing against rent hikes at her Malden apartment complex, Barbara Avery was beginning to sound battle-weary.
“We had really hoped we were being taken seriously by Alpha Management. Now they’re just sort of delaying everything,” she said.
Avery sits on the organizing committee of Malden/Medford Tenants United (M/MTU), a tenant union that formed in May after the new landlord of four apartment complexes in the area, Alpha Management, attempted to raise tenants’ rent between $200 and $600 on 15 days’ notice. Alpha Management and its CEO, Anwar Faisal, purchased the buildings in a $24 million deal at the end of May, instituting the rent increases immediately afterwards.
Throughout the summer, M/MTU has fought an uphill battle to negotiate what they consider a fair rent increase. Starting in early July, Alpha Management moved to evict dozens of tenants from their apartments after they chose to continue paying the old rent in protest, tying up much of the group’s energy in a series of court battles. Although the group has continued to publicly protest Alpha’s policies—both at the courthouse and in front of the company’s Allston headquarters—47 tenants have been taken to court for refusing to pay the increased rent.
It’s become clear to many within M/MTU that Alpha is unlikely to capitulate any time soon. As such, some of the group’s summer staples—such as weekly courthouse protests—have been put on hold as practical concerns about activist fatigue and livelihood become more pressing.
“People had to take off work to be there in the morning,” Avery said. “It may start up again, but we felt that we had made our point.”
Many have absconded from the fight entirely. Over 70 of the 266 apartments have been vacated since the beginning of the conflict, with most leaving due to financial constraints. One tenant, “April”, had lived in her apartment for three years after moving to the U.S. from Turkey.
“I’m just a research assistant at UMass. I already have no money to put aside,” she said.
“April” moved out of her apartment at the beginning of August.
Meanwhile, tenants have had to deal with a landlord that has been alternately negligent and antagonistic toward those who have chosen to stay.
One week, Alpha instituted a mandatory parking sticker policy, and forced a 78-year-old tenant, Jim Boone, to sign a new lease before they would relinquish his sticker. Another week, a couple that works nights woke up in the afternoon to a realtor strutting through their apartment, without having been given the 24 hour notice required by state law. Recently, Alpha had a wall installed in a one-bedroom apartment at 17 Washington Street—in order to turn it into a two bedroom—without receiving a permit from the city of Malden. A city inspector issued a fine and had the wall torn down. But just two weeks later the wall had been put up again, and still no permit had been issued.
In instances like these, tenants have received some assistance from their local government. Kathleen Hall, Malden’s Chief Administrative Officer, has attended every meeting of M/MTU thus far, often answering tenants’ questions about what legal recourse they might have in the situations they face. Beyond this, however, many within M/MTU are unhappy with the reaction of Malden’s elected officials.
Howard McGowan, an 88-year-old veteran and 30 year resident of his apartment at 349 Pleasant Street who serves on the tenant unions’ organizing committee, is especially vocal in his disappointment. A vigilant attendee of city council meetings, McGowan plans to challenge councilors to “back up their constituents,” now that they’ve returned from the summer recess.
“Every week we have the same things happening, over and over,” he said. “Let’s get these guys on the phone. They’re supposed to represent us!”
When asked for a comment on the situation, Councilman Nestor—whose ward encompasses two apartment complexes that make up M/MTU—expressed his concern for the tenants’ plight, but noted that there is only so much a government official can do when it comes to a situation like this.
“In this economy, you don’t want to see anyone’s rent increase at all.” But, Nestor noted, “It’s private property. I’m not sure what jurisdiction we have.”
With a new round of court dates approaching and hopes of reconciliation wearing thin, members of M/MTU are beginning to realize that their situation may not be resolved as quickly or neatly as they’d hoped. Historically, disputes like these have carried on for up to years at a time. Residents of Mattapan apartments owned by the Mayo Group spent years battling rent hikes through collective bargaining. Although they ultimately succeeded, examples like theirs make one thing clear: M/MTU’s fight will be, as often is the case for activists, a marathon rather than a sprint.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE BOSTON OCCUPIER