Mission Hill landlord-tenant relations highlight changes in Boston real estate


Elisa Figueras

Maintenance issues and rising rent costs appear to be common among the frustrations some residents have with life on Mission Hill.

Ava Sasani, news correspondent

Quinn Olpin, a fourth-year international affairs major at Northeastern University, is ready to leave Mission Hill.

Olpin will graduate from Northeastern this May. Of all the excitement the senior has to look forward to in her last year of college, the prospect of moving out of her Hillside Street home is a distinct highlight.

“I’ll be so happy to be out of that apartment,” Olpin said, shaking her head in frustration. “Every Boston landlord is going to [expletive] you no matter what you do.”

Olpin’s apartment, situated at the heart of Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood, is managed by Boston Property Services, or BPS. The real estate company is one of many in the Mission Hill area that is responsible for the sale, rental and maintenance of properties such as Olpin’s.

But Olpin says that since she first moved into her apartment in September 2017, BPS has repeatedly failed to provide the necessary repairs and accommodations for everyone living in her unit.  

“They came to fix our toilet, and didn’t fix it, and broke it worse,” Olpin said about the time she and her roommates had to fix their broken toilet flusher with a makeshift string. “Then the shower was leaking, and they made both that [and the toilet] worse instead of fixing them.”

Olpin’s frustrations escalated last winter, when BPS had to shut off her water for a week because of frozen pipes outside her apartment.

“They didn’t compensate us at all, they just said, ‘It’s not our fault because the pipes are not ours, they’re the city’s,’” Olpin said.

BPS President David Hassman said that while BPS does their best to make timely repairs, there is only so much within the company’s power to help tenant concerns.

Sometimes we try a repair first before replacing an item, I can understand that being frustrating for the tenant,” Hassman said. “We do our best and take pride in being a very responsive management company.”

Despite this, Olpin describes the company as repeatedly unresponsive and unhelpful in both duties.

Olpin recently transferred rent accounts from her bank account to her roommate’s account. She called BPS to confirm that the change was successful and to say that they should now charge her roommate’s new account. They confirmed that the change was successful, but charged Olpin’s old account anyway, overdrafting her by $4,000.

“[BPS] tried to tell me, ‘Oh you never changed it, sorry,’” Olpin said. “I eventually harassed them enough to give me all the fees back, but they weren’t super willing.”

Despite her minor victory against BPS, Olpin said that self-advocacy against any Boston landlord or management is ultimately futile because the demand for reasonable and affordable Boston housing is so high.

As of May 2019, the digital rental marketplace Zumper rates Boston as the third-most expensive city in the United States for renters, with the cost of a median one-bedroom apartment increasing 0.8 percent to $2,420 within the last month.

An increasingly inelastic housing stock has left tenants like Olpin feeling like they have no recourse against their landlords.

“It’s never worth it to fight, they’ll just kick you out and find someone new,” Olpin said. “It’s not worth putting the time and effort into fighting them because they have so much money and resources.”

Olpin’s fear has a legal term: retaliation. Retaliation, which is outlawed in Massachusetts, is when a landlord tries to punish a tenant for lodging a complaint. The most extreme form of retaliation would be eviction.

Maureen McDonagh, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, works with law students at the Harvard Legal Services Center’s Housing Law Clinic to advise tenants facing eviction cases. McDonagh said it is difficult to gauge the frequency of landlord retaliation cases because of the inherently subjective nature of retaliation allegations.  

“It’s difficult to determine because it’s not like people say, ‘I’m going to evict you because you complained!’ The jury or judge has to look into the landlord’s head and try to figure out why they did what they did,” McDonagh said. “We do see retaliation cases fairly regularly, or allegations of retaliation.”

Representatives from the city of Boston have maintained that programs implemented under Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration have expanded the rights of all tenants, including student tenants like Olpin.

Lisa Timberlake is the director of publicity for the Boston Inspectional Services Department. If a tenant files a complaint within the department, a city investigator is dispatched to evaluate the complaint, after which the city may require the landlord or management company to fix the housing problem by a certain date.

Timberlake said that in the past, private landlords outsourced their own safety inspection procedures to the city’s system.

“Some management companies are using us as their on-call system for complaints, as opposed to using their own system, they use ours to get the fire moving under their feet,” Timberlake said. “But in the last five years, it’s gotten a lot better.”

Elena Kuran, a third-year international affairs major at Northeastern, lives a short walk away from Olpin’s apartment. She said her property management company has been highly responsive to her and her roommates.

“Our hot water heater was broken two weeks in and it was fixed in a day,” Kuran said. “I have no complaints, I’ll text [the landlord] and he responds … with that said I’d think we are in the minority.”

Timberlake points to new programs meant to empower tenants and hold negligent landlords accountable, like the development of the website RentSmart Boston. The website, which launched August 2017, is an online database that compiles Boston 311 complaints and Inspectional Services Division data to show the history of housing, safety or sanitary code violations for any property in Boston.

As the city improves tools for renters, Olpin said that students are still at the mercy of rising housing costs. Even if RentSmart displays previous violations, skyrocketing rents mean that student renters have to weigh affordability against quality of building management.

“I look at cost over who manages the building,” Olpin said. “You just have to say, ‘Well, this rental company hasn’t been the worst? I could move and end up with a [expletive] company.”