Renters’ struggles in tight housing market illustrated by mass evictions from building
More than 100 tenants from a single apartment building have been plunged into the tight Cambridge housing market on short notice, bringing outrage from city councillors and new awareness of the vulnerability of residents who aren’t able to buy their homes.
In May, tenants in each of the 111 units of the Harvard Towers building at 295 Harvard St. got a notice that their leases ran out Aug. 31 and wouldn’t be renewed, according to tenant Jerome K. Saunders, speaking Monday at a meeting of the City Council. No reason was given, he said.
“This is not an inconvenience. It is a decided hardship that has serious financial implications,” Saunders said, describing tenants’ reactions as including “hyper-stress, anxiety, fear, anger and frustration.”
Among the residents are long-term renters, including himself – a 13-year occupant of the building and before that, a 26-year occupant at another location on Harvard Street, he said.
“Our lives have been rudely interrupted and we’ve had to change or cancel summer plans, including travel … Most significant is the unplanned and unexpected personal expense of this. We have to find a place, anticipate and pay brokers fees, deposits, first and last months’ rent, moving companies – and yet we are obligated to pay the balance of our current lease,” he said. “The financial situation that this has created for tenants is substantial, to the tune of approximately up to $10,000 to successfully complete a move.”
Saunders, 65, said the hardship could well delay his retirement, and hoped tenants would at least be forgiven their final month’s rent and guaranteed that their deposits would be returned promptly and in full.
Calls for help
Councillors unanimously adopted an order written by E. Denise Simmons and Marc McGovern saying they were upset with the lack of notice given to tenants despite the widespread knowledge there was a citywide housing crisis that made it hard to find new rentals. This dumped 111 households onto the market at once to compete for housing already being hunted by the usual mix of students, high-income workers and others; about 3 percent of Cambridge’s stock of roughly 30,928 rental units is vacant at any given time, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Officials at Harvard Towers were asked by councillors to help tenants find other housing, and the city manager was asked to determine what help the city could offer.
The order also asked that Harvard Towers give tenants the right to return, although Simmons suspected the building would return as condominiums.
Not so, said Jackson Slomiak, the de facto property manager for Harvard Tower Corp.
“It will become part of the rental market again,” Jackson Slomiak said Tuesday. Construction was set to begin soon, although there was no set timeframe for the work or for the building to return to the market. As of Wednesday, he said the company had heard nothing from the council or city manager. The council order identifies Ming C. Slomiak as being president of the corporation, but Jackson Slomiak said she is no longer active in the business.
The building rents at market rates and will after renovation, he said.
“We’re renovating because it’s an old building,” he said. City records show the 93,900-square-foot tower was built in 1900 but remains in good condition, assessed this year at a value of $17. 5 million. The property it sits on was assessed at $7.6 million.
“I know they’re upset and I’m very sorry about the situation,” Jackson Slomiak said of the tenants. “But they all have leases.”
Councillors acknowledged that Harvard Towers management was acting legally, but simply hitting all the legal requirement “isn’t always the right thing to do. These are people’s lives,” McGovern said. “Clearly what’s going on here isn’t right.”
The situation at Harvard Towers was “totally appalling” because the landlord gave tenants short months’ notice even though “there’s no way the owners didn’t know this was the direction they were going,” McGovern said.
Simmons said she was “incredulous” at the landlords’ behavior and was struck by Saunders’ claim that renters are made to feel like “second-class citizens” in Cambridge, where it’s nearly impossible for most to buy.
“I have chosen to be a renter due to personal life circumstances and financial challenges, but have always considered my apartment as my home, not just the place I rent,” Saunders said. “I know that there are many, many, many tenants in Cambridge who from time to time are made to feel like second class-citizens because we don’t own our homes … there is an underlying belief that tenants somehow are not ‘mature’ citizens in general and are not respectful of rental property and property-owner rights. That is not the case with me. My apartment is my home.”
Cambridge, which lost its rent-control laws in 1994 as part of a statewide referendum, is nearly two-thirds renters. The 2010 Census identified 65.4 percent of the city’s housing units as rented, and 34.6 percent as owner-occupied, including owner-occupied condominiums.
The Community Development Department puts the median market rate sale prices last year at $1.2 million for a single-family home, $937,000 for a two-family home and $575,000 for a condominium. The real estate website Zillow said there were 126 properties for sale as of Wednesday out of some 16,363 total, or about three-quarters of 1 percent of the total housing stock.