Tenant union rights proposed

November 3, 2006
By

JOHN RUCH

Big landlords would have to negotiate with tenant unions or face an official bad reputation with city agencies under a proposed city ordinance that was the subject of a Sept. 28 Boston City Council hearing. The so-called collective bargaining proposal was developed by affordable housing activists, including Jamaica Plain’s City Life/Vida Urbana.

The Small Property Owners Association (SPOA), the Cambridge-based group that was instrumental in killing rent control in the 1990s, says the proposal is “rent control with a union flavor.” SPOA depicts the proposal as tenants bullying landlords into below-market rents.

City Life’s Steve Meacham said collective bargaining has nothing to do with establishing rent control and gives tenants no guarantee of success in their negotiations, only a fair shot to be heard.

The proposal has been circulating informally for more than a year and undergoing revisions. Meacham said it’s finally being formalized “because there are several big landlords who refuse to negotiate, flat out.”

City Life has already organized many tenant unions around the city. There are many in JP, including those that established some local co-op housing and the tenant union that last year engaged in high-profile negotiations with the non-profit property manager Urban Edge.

The proposal centers on the landlord-tenant mediation services of the city’s Rental Housing Resource Center (RHRC). RHRC would certify tenant unions, which could then demand the right to bargain collectively with landlords over legitimate issues such as rent increases and building conditions. Generally, both sides are required to engage in “good-faith” bargaining, as determined by the RHRC. Specifically, that includes evidence that they considered the balance between landlord profit and rent affordability.

Afterward, the landlord would get a letter filed with city agencies such as the zoning Board of Appeal, either saying they were good-faith or bad-faith bargainers. The letter would carry no legal weight, penalty or reward, but would have to be “considered” by the agencies if the landlord was seeking permits or other services. Tenant unions could be decertified and prohibited from collective bargaining if they acted in bad faith.

The proposal applies only to buildings of 10 or more units, or landlords who manage 20 or more individual units. It comes with a five-year sunset clause. It’s a home-rule petition that would need approval of the state Legislature.

The Sept. 28 hearing was co-sponsored by an unusual coalition of Councilor Sam Yoon, who generally favors rent regulation, and Councilors Michael Flaherty and Rob Consalvo, who generally don’t.

The hearing was not directly about the proposal, instead focusing on the reported problems with negotiating with big landlords, and labor union representatives making comparisons with their organizing efforts in the workplace. Most observers expect the actual proposal to come before the council before Dec. 1.

Because of the nature of the hearing, local Councilor John Tobin said, “There’s actually no proposal as of yet. I don’t want to comment because there is no proposal.” He also declined to comment on the previously circulated draft of the proposal.

Tobin has been a regular supporter of landlord-tenant negotiation, especially through the RHRC. “How to mandate collective bargaining, I can’t comment on,” he said.

An issue Tobin raised at the hearing was changing the RHRC’s name to indicate that landlords are welcome there, too.

“If I’m a landlord and I hear the name, I would think, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with that,’” he said. “I would think the landscape would be much more tilted in favor of tenants just because of the name.”

“I don’t have an idea for a name,” he said.

Another RHRC change was proposed by Kathy Brown, a JP resident and executive director of the Boston Tenant Coaltion, another group involved in the collective bargaining proposal. She noted the city’s Boston Home Center, which provides information and help to homebuyers and owners, has a prominent downtown storefront, while the RHRC is buried in the bowels of City Hall.

“The Home Center should be dealing with everybody,” she said, proposing that RHRC services for landlords, tenants and mediation be merged into that agency and location.