“The tide has shifted and the movement is growing.”
Ruby James Saucer trudged through Center Street under the pouring rain. Her thin eyes and red-colored lips reflected the flashes of cars passing along as she held her great-granddaughter’s hand.
Around them, dozens of people chanted, “Stop the evictions, no more evictions.”
In August 2018, Ruby received a letter from PCS Dixwell Realty Trust, which had recently bought the building where she lives, informing her that rent would go up starting December 2018, from $1,500 to $2,200, to finance repairs in the building. After she refused to pay the increase, a 30-day eviction notice arrived in her mailbox.
After an hour of marching under heavy rain, the 66-year-old great-grandmother stood in front of PCS Dixwell Realty at 240 Jamaicaway and shouted, “I do not want to leave my home. I will not be bullied.”
According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, a research organization “dedicated to studying the prevalence, causes and consequences of eviction” that has compiled the first-ever dataset of eviction in the US, 2,314 evictions took place in Boston in 2016, accounting for 6.34 households a day. The Princeton database was built with tens of millions of eviction records from courthouses spread across 48 states and the District of Columbia, though the information doesn’t include the total number of evictions that happened in the US, since they’re not all fought in court. As such, the actual number of evictions is estimated to be higher than the figures reported.
Boston’s large college student population is one of the forces driving both lack of vacancy and high demand in the city’s housing market. According to Northeastern University’s Greater Boston Housing Report 2019, two in every three students enrolled in Boston’s higher education institutions in fall 2018 lived off-campus, making it hard for local families to keep up with the market’s pace.
In her case, Saucer says she can’t afford the rent hike. She is unemployed and hasn’t worked since she fell down the stairs of her house on Sept 26, 2016, breaking her ankle. Back then, the Visiting Nurses Association of Boston, where she worked as a nurse coordinator, allowed her to take time off to recover. First, she had surgery. Then, the physical therapy sessions came. Three months after the incident, her doctor issued a letter prescribing two more weeks of therapy, but her employer refused to give her more time and she was laid off.
“I couldn’t finish my therapy,” Saucer recalls. “When they fired me, they canceled my insurance the same day. … So, I got on my own, eventually walking with a cane. But it still swells up every day.”
The following year, things got worse for Saucer’s household. Her husband, Jimmy Saucer, a Korean War veteran Ruby met when she was 32 years old, was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. The disease, which according to the CDC accounts for 15% to 20% of all cases of dementia in the US, consists of an abnormal deposit of the alpha-synuclein protein that affects chemicals in the brain. Symptoms start slowly but they grow steadily, upsetting mood, behavior, movement, and thinking.
It wasn’t any different for Jimmy. In 2017, he was taking Ruby to the airport, a drive he had done for years. But this time, he couldn’t find the way in time for her to catch a flight to Indianapolis. After dropping her at the airport, he hit three other cars and got his license suspended. Before long, Jimmy was getting days and nights mixed up.
“He was going downhill,” Saucer said. “I would turn the TV on for him and he wouldn’t change the channel. I found that sort of strange, but I wouldn’t question it.”
Ruby later figured out her husband had forgotten how to change the channel and wasn’t aware of what he was watching. He started seeing ghosts and lost short-term memory capabilities. Later on, he wasn’t able to recognize family members.
James Saucer died at age 80 on Feb 18, 2018—six months before his widow received the eviction notice.
In the midst of increasing gentrification in Boston’s neighborhoods, some state lawmakers are attempting to address the situation. One potential solution is An Act Enabling Local Options for Tenant Protections, sponsored by representatives Mike Connolly and Nika Elugardo. The bill, commonly known as the Tenant Protection Act, proposes a repeal of the statewide ban on rent control, enabling municipalities to consider tenant protection. It already had its first hearing on Jan 14, and it will continue its process through the legislature.
“With this bill, what we’re saying is that we want to enable city officials to bring both tenants and renters, owners and landlords, to the table, to work out real solutions to stop displacement,” Connolly said. “That is a conversation we can’t even have right now, because state law prohibits any form of rental stabilization in a general sense.”
Massachusetts prohibited rent control in 1994, after landlords challenged the system at the state level, introducing a ballot question asking voters across the state whether rent control should be banned. With a narrow result, 51% to 49% of the vote, rent control was outlawed.
“It’s been 25 years since that ballot question in 1994,” Connolly said. “Those of us who are advocating for this bill feel confident that the time has come, and we can now revisit and reconsider this current law relative to tenant protections and rent control.”
As the Tenant Protection Act makes its way through the legislative process, it is encountering resistance from landlords like Douglas Quattrochi, executive director of Mass Landlords, a nonprofit aimed at creating “better rental housing in Massachusetts by helping current, new and prospective landlords run profitable, compliant, and quality businesses,” who consider the bill a throwback to the state of things 40 years ago.
“It didn’t work,” Quattrochi said. “People weren’t going to get a return on their investment. Buildings require a huge amount of money upfront, and you get paid slowly out of rent, over the next 10 or 20 years. Buildings weren’t in good shape.”
Quattrochi advocates for a different solution: expanding the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, which provides subsidies to eligible low-income families and individuals. For long-term solutions, he believes the zoning code must be revisited.
“We wrote our own tenant protection act, which has been filed,” Quattrochi said. “It would expand the voucher program to everyone who is over the age of 75. The state would guarantee, no matter what happens with rent, you’d be able to pay your rent and stay home.”
Asked about such subsidies, Connolly said that although it’s important to boost the value and utility of vouchers in the state, tenant protections will also be essential to help people at risk of displacement.
“The tide has shifted and the movement is now growing to recognize that with so many people unable to access the home ownership market, New York, California, and Oregon have passed comprehensive land stabilization and tenant protection bills,” Connolly said. “We need to do more to stabilize and protect people who are in the rental market.”
Saucer lives with her granddaughter, Tiara James, and her great-granddaughter, Amiya Mervin, in their three-bedroom apartment in Mattapan. After sending Amaya to kindergarten, Saucer starts her day with the morning news and then passes quiet afternoons playing video games on her small laptop: Bingo and crossword puzzles are some of her favorites. When she gets tired of playing, Saucer switches to her bedroom’s television.
In the next room, her granddaughter works remotely for Boston Medical Center’s health net, talking to customers all day until six o’clock.
In the afternoon, when Tiara comes back home from school, the house lights up. She goes into Saucer’s bedroom and jumps on her bed, asking to watch cartoons with her.
“Nana, can I change the channel?”
“No!” Saucer jokes. “You got a TV. Go in your room and watch your TV.”
Tiara knows how to work the remote control; before her great-grandmother can say one more word, the kindergartener settles the discussion by changing the station and smiling.
She wins the argument.
“I try to keep myself busy,” Saucer says proudly. “It makes it easier.” She continues with a list of organizations she’s involved with, including American Legion, where she’s belonged since 1990. Saucer is also a member of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council’s board and is part of a senior group that meets at Mildred Avenue Middle School.
“I want to stay here, have a roof over my head, a rent I can afford,” she says. “And $1,500 seems to work. Anything over that I might have to struggle with.”
Dennis Ojogho, a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau team representing Saucer in her eviction case, explains that in Massachusetts, landlords cannot evict a tenant unless the conditions of the property meet the sanitary code. In many cases, landlords seek to evict tenants regardless of the sanitary condition of the apartment.
Landlords’ most common defenses are to argue that they were not aware of the conditions of the apartment, house, or building, since it’s the tenant’s responsibility to let the landlord know what’s wrong. Other times, they say that they fixed what was wrong, or they may argue that it was the tenant who caused the damage, or that the tenant didn’t allow the landlord to fix it.
“One of the biggest issues of our legal system is that a lot of people who are low income and come from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have access to the legal system and the knowledge to a lot of the defenses they have to eviction,” Ojogho said. “The whole point of this program that we have here is to let people know that they do have rights and that they should fight, because when they fight, they win.”
On Jan 15, Saucer’s case reached the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse downtown, where the housing court hears eviction cases. She walked before the judge holding her cane, escorted by her team from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and her granddaughter Tiara.
After discussing the facts of the case, the judge set the date for a jury trial on Jan 27. But a week later, on Jan 22, the case settled without a trial. Both parties agreed to a rent of $1,750, with a 3% increase each year for a duration of three years.
Saucer feels better now after the outcome, but recognizes how no-fault evictions happen so often in Boston.
“Too many people are being put out of their homes for no-fault evictions, for no fault of their own,” Saucer says. “They live all their lives there and all of a sudden, an investor comes in and buys the building, rent goes up, all this money—knowing you can’t afford to pay it. That’s what they do.”
Before the settlement, sitting in the living room of her home, Ruby James told me how hard it was to deal with the threat of eviction.
“It was too much to handle,” she said. “People don’t know. They see you laugh, but they don’t know what’s going on. It was hard.”
Her voice cracked.
“It still is hard. Going to bed at night wondering how the bills are going to get paid. And then worrying about somebody wanting to put me out of my house. It’s just too much. It’s a lot.”