Housing Aid

The Legal Assistance Bureau is helping poor, elderly Brookline residents deal with the end of rent control

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Boston College Law School faculty and students are offering free legal advice to elderly Brookline residents who face eviction and increased rents following the demise of the city's rent control program.

The BC Legal Assistance Bureau is helping elderly tenants explore their legal options and provide courtroom representation to those who seek a stay of eviction, according to Asst. Clinical Prof. Alan Minuskin (Law), who is coordinating the effort with student-attorneys John Korman and Barry Kilroy.

Asst. Clinical Prof. Alan Minuskin (Law), right, was joined by Legal Assistance Bureau student-attorneys John Korman, left, and Barry Kilroy on Tuesday at the Brookline courthouse, where they were working on cases. "Most of the clients are frightened of court and are not able to state their cases clearly and persuasively enough on their own," Minuskin said. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
Minuskin said the BC legal aid team has been contacted by over a dozen elderly Brookline residents and is preparing several cases for presentation in court. As many as 200 senior citizens formerly protected by rent control have yet to relocate to more affordable housing since rent control ended last year, he said, and some have seen rents, previously capped at well below market rates, double or triple.

"For a lot of people, it's a very precarious situation," he added.

Boston, Brookline and Cambridge instituted rent control to ensure a local supply of affordable housing for low-income tenants. Critics claimed the programs forced landlords to personally subsidize low-income housing and drove up rents for other tenants. A 1994 state referendum struck down rent regulation in private housing. Subsequent legislation ended rent control programs in the three communities that had them, but allowed for a gradual phasing-out period until Dec. 31, 1996, Minuskin said.

"In Brookline, which has a very tight rental housing market," said Minuskin, "this has meant and will continue to mean dramatic increases in rents, including those for tenants on fixed incomes, many of whom are elderly."

Minuskin cited the case of a woman in her 70s whose monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment rose from less than $700 to $1,500 after controls were lifted. Many of the elderly tenants similarly affected have lived in their apartments for decades, according to Minuskin and other LAB members.

Third-year law student Amy Reinhart Gaffney recalled the plight of one 73-year-old client on Social Security, who moved into her apartment in 1948 shortly after her marriage and remained there even after her husband's death a few years ago.

"She has never lived anywhere else in her adult life," Gaffney said. "Every memory of their life together is alive for her inside that space. Almost every piece of furniture they owned is there. Her whole life, including friends and places she goes to shop, is in her neighborhood. To lose it would be devastating. And the plain truth is that there is no way she could pay the huge rent increase the landlord was seeking."

The LAB won the woman a lengthy stay of eviction and has helped her seek a government housing subsidy that might allow her to move to another apartment in her neighborhood, Minuskin said.

Despite plenty of notice, Minuskin said many elderly tenants - perhaps out of denial - have taken few steps to prepare for an impending loss of housing. "In some cases, a constable may already be at the door with a moving truck and full authority from the court to carry out the eviction," he said.

Through its Elder Services Project, the LAB is working with local service agencies to help elderly tenants explore housing alternatives, while providing courtroom representation to those who need postponement of eviction to give them time to relocate. A judge has the authority to grant a stay of up to one year and can order that the rent remain at the old level for that period, allowing time for the tenant to make alternate housing arrangements, according to Minuskin. Some elderly tenants live in substandard conditions and are in a position to fight the eviction on that basis, he added.

"Most of the clients are frightened of court and are not able to state their cases clearly and persuasively enough on their own," said Minuskin. "The advocacy LAB students provide can make a tremendous difference. Getting the tenant an extension of time, for example, increases the chance of relocation to a subsidized unit within or near the tenant's neighborhood."

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