Northampton tenants organize to fend off rent hike

  • The apartment building at 2 Belanger Place in Northampton is shown Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/30/2020 6:40:36 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When a new owner bought 2 Belanger Place in late July and proposed a rent increase, residents of the six-unit apartment building were stressed.

Under the new lease, the rent for Grace McCabe’s apartment, which she shares with one other person, would increase by $150 a month in September.

“I know that $1,200 to $1,350 doesn’t sound like a lot, but to us, that was a lot, and I think for a lot of people, it was the principle of raising rent during a moment of such profound economic crisis,” said McCabe, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying urban and regional planning who lost her part-time work or a local government.

“This is a pandemic and various people in our building are unemployed,” said TA Wong, a two-year resident of the building. “A lot of us are service or wage workers.” The new lease also asked for a new security deposit, he said. “Anything like a rent increase plus asking to pay an extra security deposit would be a lot.”

At the end of July, the property sold for $560,000 to Ampersand Sprout LLC, according to the deed recorded with the Hampshire County Registry of Deeds on July 31. Jordi Herold is listed as the only manager and signatory of the LLC in the company’s most recent annual report filed with the state. Herold owns residential and mixed-use property in Northampton, and also co-founded the Iron Horse Music Hall.

The residents at 2 Belanger Place were asked to sign a new lease that would start Sept. 1, and told that there would be increases in future years. For McCabe, by 2023, the rent would have increased to $1,750 a month, she said.

The proposed rent hikes would lead to tenants moving out, Wong said. “My impression was most people would not continue to stay if this were to go through.”

Thomas Lesser, a lawyer who represents Herold, said the landlord proposed a $150 increase in the first year and later increases for the third year and beyond to increase the rent to “market rate.” The previous landlord had not raised the rent “in many years,” Lesser said, adding that the leases didn’t lock the renters into staying for future years. “The tenant had the option every year of leaving.”

With the new leases unsigned, the residents met outdoors and talked to each other from their porches about the situation. They also looked for help from the Central Valley Tenants Union (CVTU), a new tenants network that formed in May.

“There were several of us facing income insecurity and fear about being able to pay rent when the COVID crisis hit,” said Oriana Reilly, a member of the CVTU, explaining why they started the group. In Northampton, for example, 1,611 people filed unemployment claims in mid-July, according to an analysis from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, while 2,913 people did the same in Holyoke that month.

“Before this, if a landlord does anything shady to a tenant, there’s just no way for other tenants to spring up in action to support them,” Reilly said. “Some of our other main goals are to directly organize tenants in buildings and neighborhoods to grow the number of tenants associations in the areas.” A few groups CVTU worked with negotiated rent reductions this summer, according to Reilly.

With advice from the CVTU, the Belanger Place residents decided to form a tenants association, “The Association of the Tenants of the Buildings of Jordi Herold,” and on Aug. 7, they sent a letter informing Ampersand Sprout and Herold. The letter asked for a freeze in rent for two years, no new security deposit, the ability for existing small pets to stay and, among other asks, a request to “pledge to refuse to evict any current residents from any of your properties.”

In mid-August, Lesser and Lawrence Farber of Farber and Lindley LLC wrote back to the tenants on behalf of Ampersand Sprout and its management company, Icarus Wheaten and Finch.

“We appreciate what you say about the social and economic disruptions caused by a COVID-19 emergency,” the letter states, going on to say that rent will remain the same for the next year, and a $150 increase will not occur until the second year, no new security deposit would be needed, and that small pets living there already can stay.

The letter declined to make promises about evictions. “Evictions would be handled on a case by case basis. At times, evictions are necessary because of illegal activity, to protect other tenants’ peace and quiet, etc.,” it said.

Asked why Herold ultimately froze the rent for the year, Lesser said, “His intention is to get along with tenants.”

McCabe is signing her lease, and thinks most other tenants will, too. As for the future of the tenants association, “My hope is that it is still a formation that we can return to if anything comes up in the future,” she said. “I know at least a couple other tenants in other units feel that way.”

Wong pointed out that Herold owns other properties, too.

“If other people, other tenants of Jordi Herold, want to get in touch and join the union,” he said, “I think we would be very open to that.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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