Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Avalon North Point residential building leads in eviction cases sent to Cambridge District Court in early 2021. (Image: Google)

The owner of the huge Avalon North Point luxury housing development near Lechmere continues to file the most residential eviction cases of any Cambridge landlord, and many involve allegations that tenants violated Covid-19 precautions with noisy parties. During the first three months of this year, Avalon North Point submitted at least 22 eviction filings out of 24 residential cases in Cambridge District Court, with multiple other landlords adding another 23 cases in Housing Court.

It’s not known whether the partying translated into Covid-19 infections. The Cambridge Public Health Department doesn’t provide detailed information about where there are clusters of Covid-19 cases. East Cambridge has consistently had one of the higher case rates among the city’s neighborhoods; the city groups North Point with East Cambridge for the count. On Monday, East Cambridge had the third-highest rate of cases per 10,000 residents.

As for evictions, overall, a flood of cases feared by tenant advocates after Gov. Charlie Baker allowed the state eviction moratorium to expire last October has not materialized, city housing liaison Maura Pensak said last week. “The reality is, there is still a relatively low number of evictions that have been filed in court for nonpayment,” Pensak said. “I think the numbers are low because of the resources we have been able to provide.”

Business evictions

The Pyara Spa and Salon at 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Square, is fighting an eviction filing based on limitations imposed on its business by the coronavirus. (Photo: Pyara Spa and Salon via Facebook)

Meanwhile, three businesses also face eviction filings. One, Pyara Spa and Salon, lost its case in a Cambridge District Court trial and the judge approved a judgment of $745,480. The salon is still operating and has asked the judge to reconsider, said its lawyer, Ryan Siden. There have been no decisions yet in the cases of the two other businesses: a foot massage parlor and a Japanese restaurant.The Cambridge eviction moratorium applies to businesses as well as residents.

Pyara had to close for two months starting in March 2020 because of the governor’s lockdown order restricting capacity to 25 percent, Siden said. Rent was $29,000 a month in March and $36,000 since then, he said. Pyara did get a Payroll Protection Program loan from the federal government for $419,427 last April to save 45 jobs, according to records. Siden declined to comment on any government aid the business received.

Siden said he argued unsuccessfully in court that government action prevented Pyara from carrying out the purpose described in its lease agreement – operating a salon – so it wasn’t bound to pay rent, and it couldn’t.

The coffeehouse chain Caffe Nero used a similar argument, called “frustration of purpose,” in an eviction case in Suffolk Superior Court and won, Siden said. Retailers have taken heart from the decision. If the judge in Pyara’s case does not reconsider, Siden said he plans to appeal.

Mayor’s Fund and a moratorium

As for the North Point property, the press office for its parent, AvalonBay Communities, didn’t respond to an email last week asking whether it had told tenants of the city’s eviction moratorium and seeking comment on the apparent conflict between tenants’ rights and public health. Pensak said: “The city takes seriously any eviction actions, but we cannot comment on any specific situation.”

The resources Pensak cited include two rounds of funding from the city’s $1.5 million Housing Stabilization Fund for lower-income tenants and homeowners who pay more than a set percentage of their income for housing because of the pandemic. The Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund raised more than $4.7 million from donors to help residents hurt by the pandemic.

The Stabilization Fund aided 200 tenants last year and is processing 100 cases this year, with applications still open, Pensak said; the city recently added $638,000. The Disaster Relief Fund helped 550 residents, she said.

Working with landlords

Besides providing money, the city is working with some managers of market-rate housing to avoid filing eviction cases, which can hurt tenants’ ability to find housing even if there’s no legal judgment. Some of the companies signed a “pledge” to do so, Pensak said. “We are making sure that especially those who are struggling to pay rent, they are sending them to us proactively,” she said.

Pensak declined to say how many owners signed on; she did single out the Cambridge Housing Authority for having a “very strong tenancy preservation program.” CHA has made it easier for tenants who lose their jobs to get their rent lowered. Other affordable housing providers are also trying to avoid eviction filings, she said.

The city promulgated a public health emergency rule last spring barring enforcement of eviction judgments for any reason; it applies to residential and commercial evictions. The moratorium doesn’t prevent owners from filing an eviction case, but if they win a court judgment against a tenant, the rule prevents them from putting the tenant on the street.

Still, statistics compiled by the state court system say that nine eviction judgments for nonpayment of rent were enforced in Cambridge since the state moratorium expired. That would seem to violate the city rule, though details of the cases were not available.

Spreading the word

A judge would have to approve any execution, and a constable or sheriff would have to carry it out. The city did tell its appointed constables about the moratorium, constable Albert Darling said. “I hardly ever do evictions,” he said. “There was one person who asked me to do it. I asked him to send me the paperwork. It was all outdated.”

City solicitor Nancy Glowa didn’t respond to an email asking whether the city had informed district court judges and constables who are not appointed by Cambridge about the moratorium.

Another constable, Bob Sweeney, said carrying out evictions “was a big part of my business.” The myriad different rules in different communities are confusing landlords, he said. “It’s very sad when you go to a house and there are three or four … roommates and they say, ‘Screw it,’” because of the moratorium, he said.

“The city councils are politicians, they want to make everyone happy,” he said.

Kevin Maccioli, spokesman for Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian, said the sheriff’s office is aware of the Cambridge eviction moratorium and the office “is not currently executing evictions.”

Erika Gully-Santiago, spokeswoman for the state trial court, was asked whether district court judges had been informed about the Cambridge eviction moratorium. Judges “are aware of local ordinances,” she said. She also provided a link to a list of tenant resources that she said the court provides to every tenant facing eviction. The list names local agencies, including the Cambridge Multi-Service Center, and legal and mediation services. It does not include local regulations such as the city’s eviction moratorium, though the agencies on the list would know about the moratorium.

On the docket

At a court hearing Thursday in a North Point eviction case, neither the Cambridge District Court judge nor the lawyer for the North Point property mentioned the moratorium.

The two young women defendants, who didn’t contest that there had been a nighttime party – although one said she wasn’t there when it happened – ended up agreeing to leave when their lease ends May 31 and to pay the landlord’s $250 fee to file the case. “We’re okay with that,” North Point property lawyer Andrew Kepple told Cambridge District Court Judge Allen Swan. Kepple agreed to schedule a continuation of the trial on June 3 “and if they’re gone I’ll dismiss the case … The property understands it was one mistake.”

“We don’t need to burn them with a judgment,” he told the judge.

Not every North Point property case involves partying. One tenant who didn’t show up at an eviction case trial in February had a judgment for $12,313 plus eviction entered; another ended up with a judgment for $14,139 and eviction after trial. The large judgments instead of court fees indicate that these cases were for nonpayment of rent. Court records available online didn’t indicate whether the tenants lost their homes, although one case said the tenant agreed to the judgment. The North Point property charges luxury rents but houses some low-income tenants under the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance.