Boston has been in the spotlight for a few years now as a rapidly-developing city. The quality of life, job opportunities, and culture attract more residents every year. There’s just one problem – entry-level corporate salaries remain stagnant while rental prices skyrocket.

Many people reading this article can attest to the fact they are probably paying too much for rent and receiving too little in return. In the North End, where I live, the saying is “old and big” or “new and small”. Basically, you have to compromise, even though the yearly lease runs a total of $50,400. Our property manager (and I use the term loosely) conveniently left out the fact that electric heat could run $500-900 extra per month while the apartment is STILL frigid due to old drafty windows. He tried to raise the rent $100 per month each year on top of it. After winter ’14, told me over the phone, “If I get you guys out of there, I can get at least $300 more per month”. Not considering market supply and demand, that apartment is worth more or less $1,500 a month. Needless to say, he didn’t get a penny more out of me on our lease renewal.

Some of these incompetent and disillusioned property managers are striking gold doing nothing while absentee landlords trust them to maintain their units. It shocks me how complacent tenants are with their landlords and property managers – tenants need to be educated on what they are legally owed, especially for the price tags on their units. Tenants should not be afraid to seek legal aid when they feel backed into a corner by their landlords.

Is rent control the answer?

For nearly 30 years in Mass, up until 1994, rent control was alive and well. To nobody’s surprise, rent jumped nearly 50% between 1994 and 1997. Tenants were evicted, but properties were upgraded at the same time. A fine balance exists between being pro-business and maintaining semi-reasonable rent prices.

In a recent article, a Mass real estate attorney Richard Vetstein argues that “the idea of rent control has been debunked as a failed policy by countless economists”, and “a restrictive price ceiling reduces the supply of properties on the market”. He says “As an old city with little if any developable land left, Boston has always dealt with a supply vs. demand problem”. Link to the article is here.

Perhaps rental prices in Boston are so high because the city lacks room due to the shortage of available housing, and needs a way to keep some people out. That’s a weak reason, however, for allowing rent to skyrocket uncontrollably, allowing landlords to become rich off of the working person’s dime.

Solution(s).

I believe the idea of traditional rent control – rent control of the past – won’t do Boston any good in 2016. Problems of today aren’t answered by yesterday’s attempted solutions. Boston needs creative restrictions and incentives to make a landlord’s investment worth it while at the same time making a tenant’s rent reasonable.

There won’t be a shortage of tenants anytime soon in Boston, meaning rental prices aren’t going to lower. If they’re going to keep going up, the quality of the apartment provided should be held to a higher standard as well.

1. A percentage of rental income should be mandated by law to be re-invested into the rental unit for renovation, or face a hefty fine.

Of course, this will cause landlords to band together and sue for being deprived Equal Protection, among other claims. However I don’t see anything wrong with 3% of rent being mandated by law to be reinvested into the unit for purposes of clean energy or building renovation to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood, to name a few.

This 3% reinvestment mandate should be triggered by landlords who charge over a certain rate per bedroom, in order to avoid unfairly implementing the mandate on landlords who wish to charge less and avoid having to update, instead maintaining the minimum standard of livability. This would also allow for a good counterargument against a potential Equal Protection lawsuit by landlords.

2. Tax incentives should be provided for landlords to push them to reinvest into their units. 

Another strategy, apart from imposing by law that landlords must reinvest in their units,  involves offering tax incentives to achieve the same goal. I believe that the city currently imposes a tax on landlords, the proceeds of which then is used to build “affordable housing” – this is a scam. Forget this, and find a way to privatize the promulgation of affordable housing. That way, results are seen immediately and money lines the workers’ pockets instead of the politicians’.

3. Force landlords to pay the realtor fee(s). 

As much as I support a free market economy, the realtor fee is a scam. A “showing”- or taking a stroll around an apartment – isn’t worth a month of rent (especially not by the egotistical clown that did our showing) – at least not out of my pocket. If the landlord wants to hire somebody to give tours to rent out their unit, he should be paying for it.

4. Impose stiffer penalties on landlords and/or property management companies.

I’ve heard too many stories about money coming out of escrow when it shouldn’t. I’ve heard stories of plumbing, electrical and heating issues going unresolved for extended periods of time. If a landlord doesn’t want to update his unit, he should be held responsible when an old utility breaks down and causes the tenant stress and other problems.

The legislators should contemplate punitive damages for negligence in these circumstances. Essentially, it does amount to willful negligence. I believe that argument can be made in certain cases, and I wouldn’t hesitate in making it.

The Boston housing problem can be seen as a real estate issue. However, it’s time to start seeing it as a consumer protection issue. And it’s time for those with the power to do something about it, to actually do something about it.