The Cambridge Candle

 

Vol. 1, No. 1

November/December 1998

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The End of Two Homes

By Bill Cunningham

I have trouble remembering that they were nice, sunny days.

I spent Tuesday, October 20, with Betty Loder and her son Matt as their furniture was taken from their home and deposited on Green Street. A group of neighbors and friends stood with her through the eviction. My wife, Ellen, was with me.

Friday, September 4, Ellen and I were evicted from her home of 21 years. A week earlier, she had been operated on for cancer. Kirkland Street resounded with the shouts of our friends and supporters.

Our cases were different, but in the end, the same. Our landlords went to court to evict us for the same reason -- none. Without rent control, they did not have to give any reasons.

Each case was settled without a trial. Although our landlords might well have lost in court, we signed agreements to vacate after one or two years in exchange for peace, because when a tenant succeeds in stopping an eviction in court, the landlord can just start another eviction case, and then another.

Furthermore, it takes a lot of legal work to win a “no cause” eviction. You have to show that the landlord is actually discriminating, or retaliating, because you called the health department, or otherwise depriving you of your legal rights.

Betty’s legal aid attorney is swamped with eviction cases. Her attorney can’t fight very many of them in court, so she tries to make agreements with the landlords to buy time, to give tenants a chance to find new homes.  A lot of these agreements are running out now, four years after rent control was outlawed.

The Loders’ case got some attention because their landlord was State Representative Alvin Thompson, who used another apartment in the ramshackle building at 521 Green Street as his official address.

The real reason for the eviction was probably economic. Betty Loder paid her rent with the help of a “Section 8” government subsidy, which can’t come near today’s market rents. For that same reason, the Loders couldn’t find another landlord to take her “Section 8” during the year her agreement ran.

Betty is a woman who was born and raised in Riverside, and had brought up three sons in this same neighborhood. Disabled by the effects of an early operation, her income is limited. In defense of his behavior, the landlord criticized Ms. Loder at public meetings and in the media, making it even harder for her to find new housing

To give you an idea of how much legal work is involved in defending a “no-cause” eviction in court, consider our case.

In 1989, a new landlord bought the Kirkland Street building that Ellen Al-Weqayan had already been living in for 12 years. Ellen testified at the Human Rights Commission in a 1994 discrimination case brought against the landlord. Her testimony was supposed to have been confidential, but evidently the landlord found out about it right away.

Two months after rent control ended, the landlord tried and failed to evict us after Ellen called Inspectional Services about his refusal to repair a rear entry door. The next year he demanded that we pay a rent increase more than twice as high as that for other tenants and to sign a lease which would have forced Ellen to close her in-home day care business, her sole source of income.

When the landlord moved to evict us for refusing those terms, our attorneys made all this part of our defense, and filed a countersuit based on Ch.93(a), the Consumer Protection law. This legal case cost us $12,000!

We expected to win in court. The landlord’s lawyer probably thought so, too, so he offered a settlement. We accepted the settlement in exchange for two years of peace, hoping we might find a new home in that time.

But we did not find a new home. Few landlords want family day care, much less tenants with a “political” reputation. Of course, it would be illegal for them to say so.

Then, two months before we were supposed to vacate our home, Ellen was diagnosed with cancer. She had to stop working, and I went on unpaid family leave from my job in a printing shop. We went to court for a month’s stay of execution, and to the Housing Authority for emergency housing. We were turned down for both.

Thus it is that two Cambridge households wound up on the street. No matter how different our circumstances may have seemed, we were processed through the same legal machine and cast out by the same relentless real estate market.

Friends and relatives have taken us in. Thank God for them. But we are still homeless. Thank the landlords and politicians for that.


By Ellen Al-Weqayan

I think of September 4, the day of our eviction.

I remember the beauty of the day.

I remember the faces of all the people who came to support us from Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.

I remember driving away from our home of 21 years, choking back tears and willing myself not to look back.



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