August 16, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 1
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City Council strikes down tenant bargaining bill

Toussaint Losier

The Boston City Council voted 8-5 last week against the Tenant Collective Bargaining Act, a bill that would have protected the rights of tenants to bargain collectively to address rental issues. Exempting the overwhelming majority of landlords, this bill would have encouraged mainly large corporate landlords to sit down at the table with their tenant associations.

The 8-5 count was the same as the Council’s 2004 vote against the Community Stabilization Act, legislation that would have allowed tenants to appeal large rent increases while providing special protections for small owners. When that measure failed to pass, tenant leaders took over Council chambers for half an hour.

In the wake of that vote, activists organized tenant associations across Mattapan, Roslindale and Jamaica Plain. Those associations have been successful in negotiating contracts with owners that provided three to five years of protection against arbitrary rent increases and evictions. With some landlords refusing to negotiate, this bill would have insisted that large owners at least talk to these associations, preventing those who refused to meet with tenant groups from receiving city permits.

Tenant activists said they initially received support for the new bill from councilors who had opposed the earlier legislation. In an effort to meet the concerns of real estate owners, affordable housing activists claimed they made multiple changes to the bill. But as the Greater Boston Real Estate Board maintained its opposition to the bill — referring to it as rent control — other councilors dropped their support.

Prior to the vote last Wednesday, more than 50 tenant and labor activists held a prayer vigil outside City Hall. Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain and Minister Kenneth Simms of Boston’s New Hope Baptist Church led a brief prayer service.

In City Hall chambers, several councilors spoke in support of the bill. City Councilor Sam Yoon highlighted recent research indicating that over half of all Boston renter households spend more than 30 percent of their income to housing, an increase from 43 percent of renters five years ago.

“It seems like this legislation isn’t going to change the world, but [will] affirm the principle that those who are really struggling in their economic situation have a right to join together and work with the people who own their property,” said City Councilor Chuck Turner just before the vote. “This vote is important because it’s going to say where we stand in a city that is more economically divided each and every day.”

“I really don’t know what the real estate industry is afraid of. This is the most modest legislation,” said City Councilor Charles Yancey. “If we fail to pass this today, we are OK with the status quo, that tenants in this city have no rights that landlords are bound to respect.”

Immediately after the vote, supporters of the bill slowly marched out of Council chambers, clapping and singing “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.”

From inside the building, two activists dropped a “Council votes for Corporate Greed” banner. Chanting “a union at work, a union at home,” tenant and labor activists spoke out against the final vote from outside City Hall.

“Let’s just be clear that this is not just a landlord tenant issue, but it’s an issue of racial justice,” shouted Steve Meacham, a tenant organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana. “Only one of nine white councilors stood with tenants who are largely people of color. What did it mean that a white-led City Council voted to support white-led corporations?”

At the beginning of their rally, tenant activists unfurled a large banner, reading “Council votes for Corporate Greed,” from a City Hall window, calling attention to the City Council’s perceived lack of support for Boston’s tenants. (Toussaint Losier photo)

Tenant and labor activists march out of City Hall chambers following the City Council’s 8-5 vote last Wednesday against the proposed Tenant Collective Bargaining Act. Activists say the defeated measure would have forced landlords like Deutsche Bank to negotiate with tenants being evicted due to foreclosure. (Toussaint Losier photo)

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