HIGH RENTAL HOUSING costs have long been a source of concern among Greater Boston housing advocates. Rapidly rising inflation and a continued shortage of new housing construction have amplified activists’ fears in recent years, with strong emotions directed at landlords.
As a small residential property owner, I should know. Last fall, my investment group purchased a six-unit apartment building in the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville. Shortly after, the Community Action Agency of Somerville launched an aggressive harassment campaign with the help of elected city officials that targeted me via social media and email.
Blaming any single landlord for housing costs is akin to “shooting the messenger.” In my case, the irony cuts deeper. As a proud 28-year-old immigrant and naturalized citizen, my version of the American dream is personified by creating quality housing to help meet an essential human need. Small property ownership reflects my personal vision of benefitting local neighborhoods. Every new investment creates jobs, contributes substantial tax revenue to local and state government, and funds refurbishment of decayed properties.
In six years since graduating from college, I’ve built a successful real estate portfolio without a single financial handout. I’ve made substantial investments in Somerville, Everett, Malden, and Boston neighborhoods. It is gratifying to help improve local neighborhoods and communities by way of tax payments and property improvements. My goal is to educate and inspire a new generation about the value of quality housing. That’s why I proudly share my experiences in community improvement via free educational materials on internet platforms like Instagram and YouTube.
I was not prepared for months of political scapegoating in Somerville. Supply and demand – the most basic of economic principles – dictates apartment rental prices. Those forces lie well beyond the control of a single property owner. And successful operation of high-quality housing requires thoughtful investment strategies, clear-eyed management, and pragmatic considerations. Surely the Community Action Agency of Somerville and elected officials understand that market-based rents are required for debt service payment, renovation expenses (labor and materials), tax payments, and property upkeep.
Quality housing signifies the byproduct of meaningful investment. Anything less burdens local neighborhoods and communities. Upfront investments, ongoing maintenance costs, and monthly outlays for insurance and gas, electrical, and water/sewer fees must be taken into consideration. Return on investment remains an absolute condition for a landlord to support employees, satisfy lenders, and create future housing opportunities. Today, success in real estate represents thousands of hours of effort amid an incredibly challenging financial environment. There is no room for wishful thinking. Vigilant management of property-related debt and expenses is the only way to sustain quality housing, with market rents reinvested right back into the properties.
Consider the property that is the subject of ire among Somerville activists and politicians. For decades, the prior owner leased three-bedroom apartments for between $1,100- and $1,300-a-month, or roughly three times below average rent for similar flats in Somerville. Obviously, property owners can charge rent as they see fit, but excessively cheap rent inevitably leads to a building’s decline. The long-term lack of reinvestment at the Winter Hill property harmed the building, tenants, and surrounding neighborhood.
Apparently, Somerville politicians believe it’s better to pander to special interests than encourage reinvestment in high-quality rental properties. As I experienced, elected officials were eager to publicly harass a landlord who had spent tens of thousands of dollars to improve their community. They called me heartless and greedy, said I was atrocious, and said “shame on you.”
One Somerville City Councilor threatened “scrutiny and negative attention from local elected officials.” A state Senate aide warned “Do not cross our community.”
Not one of the bullying politicians and activists offered a single practical solution. The mob had one message: charge rent roughly 65 percent below market value to the benefit of a single family or endure public harassment fueled by City Hall connections and influence.
After reading the politicians’ nasty comments, you might be surprised to learn that I abide by the law or that my lived experience compels me to treat all people with the utmost dignity and respect. It certainly was discouraging to realize that elected officials and activists didn’t consider my reputation before engaging in public attacks.
Had city officials taken a different approach, they’d have learned about our efforts to ensure a smooth transition for other residents who relocated from the Winter Hill property who could not afford market rents. Our team provided free moving, two months of free rent, and free broker’s fees. One family bought a private home, with our financial aid supporting the down payment. We also maintained existing rent for a third family until the end of the school year, thereby allowing a high-school student to avoid a mid-year transfer.
In the end, the relentless political harassment was misguided and pointless. Still, I worry that it happened at all. As children, we’re taught that it’s never okay to bully. Somerville officials entrusted with public office ignored this very simple lesson. Perhaps it’s time they rethink their treatment of small property owners who deliver substantial levels of investment into their community.
Lior Rozhansky is an owner/operator of a residential realty portfolio, with properties in Boston, Everett, Malden, and Somerville.