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MALDEN, MEDFORD

Tenants protest rent hikes

But new owners cite below-market rates

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2012
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Scores of tenants in Malden and Medford have banded together to fight sudden rent increases and what they call landlord intimidation tactics, after a Boston real estate firm purchased three apartment buildings late last month and promptly demanded substantially higher rents.

Allston-based Alpha Management had barely signed a $23.5 million deal April 26 to purchase the 248 units, when the company began slipping notices under tenants' doors demanding as much as 20 and 30 percent more, to take effect June 1.

“It basically said pay up or get out,’’ said Kelly Cooke, 36, who has lived for 15 years at 17-19 Washington St., a tidy stone complex steps from the Malden Center T station. Cooke, who has been out of work for more than a year and cobbles together rent by borrowing money from friends and family, said that for years, her rent was stable at $650. But Alpha asked $950 for the studio, a $300 increase she said she couldn't bear.

“This is my home,’’ she said. “That is the component here that I think they don't get. It's a very uncertain time. Everyone's stressed.’’

In interviews, residents said that Alpha employees began a door-knocking campaign to collect signatures from all tenants to confirm their intentions either to renew their tenancy and reapply for a lease with Alpha or leave the premises. Some residents said they felt intimidated by the employees, who they said traipsed the halls banging on doors from morning to night.

“They're here every day, waking people out of bed,’’ said Damon Syphers, a 50-year-old doctoral candidate who lives at 349 Pleasant St. and is building leader in a newly formed tenants union. “They come in the morning, they come in the afternoon, they come at night. I feel unsafe.’’

Tenants have formed the coalition among the buildings, called Medford/Malden Tenants United, which has held several meetings and plans to speak with one voice during negotiations with Alpha.

In a phone interview, Alpha owner Anwar Faisal defended his prices and practices, saying that rental rates are at fair-market or slightly below fair-market for units located close to public transportation, and that he was charging rates necessary for him to keep up with a monthly mortgage payment that exceeds $100,000.

“I want to give every tenant a fair shot,” he said, and invited residents to contact him.

“They submit the application; we start negotiating.”

He also vowed to work with the most vulnerable residents — the elderly, those with disabilities, and residents on Federal section 8 housing vouchers, and said the 30-day notice is legally required and that he has no plan to suddenly evict people.

He also denied accusations of intimidation.

The tenants “wouldn’t give us a chance to present our view,” Faisal said. “This is the reason I have two guys going door to door, to tell them what we are looking for.”

Alpha’s purchase included the three large apartment buildings — located at 17-19 Washington St.; 349 Pleasant St.; and 86-96 Maple St., in Malden, and 53-63 Fellsway West in Medford — and one smaller property, a duplex, at 40 Cedar St. in Malden.

Alpha, which owns dozens more properties in the student-rich neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton, has been the subject of news media scrutiny before. Online reviews of Alpha's practices are overwhelmingly negative, with some former tenants describing outright refusals by Alpha to fix leaks, eradicate mice and cockroaches, or communicate civilly. In 2011, the US Department of Labor ordered Alpha and Faisal to pay $250,000 in back wages and damages to 42 employees for overtime the company refused to pay between 2008 and 2010.

Now, some city and housing officials fear there is little recourse for the residents, some of whom never signed a lease or let their leases lapse, making them tenants at-will, a legally perilous position that hands most of the power to the landlord. Traditionally, leases contain protections for tenants that outline the period of tenancy and a set monthly rent rate that can't be changed unless the lease is broken. Some residents said that after 10, 20, and even 30 years, leases were a foregone conclusion, a lapse that now may leave some of them out to dry.

And because the sale was between two private parties without government assistance or involvement, the city of Malden is left with few tools to leverage the new owners to change their behavior.

Malden Mayor Gary Christenson said he planned to meet with Faisal and tenant organizers to address the hasty time frame in which Alpha and Faisal are attempting to extract the increases or vacate the units.

“Turning someone's life upside down in 30 days, to me, we should look if there is a different way,’’ Christenson said. Similar situations in Malden have arisen in the past at other apartment buildings, but in those cases, federal subsidies for the properties gave the city and other groups leverage that it does not have over Alpha.

“It's concerning, and it’s another reason we want to be involved, to make sure that it fits with . . . how I would expect people to do business here in Malden — treating people how they want to be treated,’’ he said.

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.

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