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Landlords wish list: more housing, higher wages

  • Greenfield’s central residential area, where much of the city’s privately owned rental housing is located. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greenfield as seen from Poet’s Seat. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • John Knight, Sr., looks through Craigslist ads for available apartments on the computers at the RECOVER Project on Federal Street in Greenfield on Dec. 6. Knight has been searching for an apartment since January of 2016. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greenfield Gardens, one of the city’s subsidized housing complexes, which often have waiting lists. Staff photo/Dan Little



Staff Writer
Friday, December 07, 2018
Fifth in a series

GREENFIELD — Increased costs of maintaining rental properties, expanding regulations, shifting demographics and too few apartments — all at a time when lower income wages have stagnated — are making it difficult for renters to find apartments they can afford, Greenfield landlords say.

Landlords know there needs to be more apartments to meet the demand. Otherwise, the market will continue to become less affordable, especially as millennials move to Greenfield from areas like Northampton and Amherst and choose to rent instead of buy.

“There are more people chasing after fewer units, so availability of good, quality units goes down,” said Mark Abramson, a longtime area Realtor. “So that’s created a problem.”

Abramson said the costs of operating a rental have continued to escalate in recent years. These costs include insurance, taxes, water and sewer fees.

Like other landlords, he sees an increase in the minimum wage as a part of the solution to alleviating the affordable housing crisis.

“It’s not the lone fix,” Abramson said. “There needs to be more housing units.”

It’s expensive to try to build low-income housing in today’s market, from costs of labor and construction to state and federally mandated codes that make it even more costly.

“If they could make codes more flexible to build apartments, I think more would be built and would create a more affordable market,” he said.

One specific new code he points to is mandatory sprinkler systems that must be installed in new multi-family homes. While he acknowledges the safety issues behind the regulations, he questions whether it is an “over-requirement.” Abramson said the state should consider an alternative that is not so expensive while maintaining safety.

Zaccheo’s view

Some apartments in town that have been built or refurbished more recently belong to Barbara and Mark Zaccheo. These are known as some of the nicest apartments in town, but also tend to cost on the higher side of rental scale.

The Zaccheos, through their Olive Street Development LLC, own about 59 apartments in Greenfield, some of which are the most heralded, modern rentals in the city. Ms. Zaccheo estimates a roughly 10 percent increase in the median income in the past two years, climbing up to $50,000, which she says technically would make the average affordable apartment at $1,250 a month.

“One of the major issues is that many people live below the median income level, which means that they cannot afford anywhere near $1,250,” Ms. Zaccheo said in a written response to questions about a landlord’s view of today’s housing market. That’s why she would like to see the minimum wage increased, annually, up to $15, while noting they do not pay any of their employees under $18 an hour. Minimum wage in Massachusetts is about to rise to $12.

About 10 percent of her apartments are rented to those with housing assistance. She said there has not been a vacancy in an apartment in the last five years.

“It is very important to note that we believe that there is a housing shortage in general in the area, not just of ‘affordable housing,’” Ms. Zaccheo said.

This is a point made in the Franklin Regional Council of Governments 2014 affordable housing analysis. There are not enough apartments to rent at the price point of the Zaccheo apartments, and therefore, financially well-off people take less expensive apartments that otherwise would be available to people who are trying to move out of public housing, sometimes with a federal Section 8 rent voucher.

What happens then is people do not move out of public housing, because they can’t find an apartment with their voucher or, as some local residents say, they know they will never find anything anyway, leading to a discouraged and less ambitious market of renters.

This slows turnover in public housing projects, making it more difficult for people in halfway houses, detox centers and shelters — many of whom are affected by the opioid epidemic — to find any housing to leave their situations.

This is the point when someone with a network of support, like family or a friend, would fall back on them for help. But for the most disadvantaged, this oftentimes is the point they fall back into homelessness, commit a crime like shoplifting and end up in jail, or relapse from their recovery. It can be a vicious cycle.

The tenant pool for low-income housing isn’t always what a landlord would consider quality renters, particularly if your clientele is living off a subsidized income, say some landlords, who cite underlying low income as a root problem.

One landlord said with a lack of quality health care and certain skills and knowledge, like how to manage your finances smartly, people run into difficult situations repeatedly.

“It’s brutal out there as far as the problems people have,” the landlord said.

Shifts in clientele have also affected the local housing market.

“People used to tell us it was too far to drive from Greenfield to jobs in Springfield, Northampton, Holyoke, Amherst and Brattleboro, but this no longer seems to be a problem as many of our customers commute ... as they were frustrated by the local housing markets near their jobs due to price and quality,” Ms. Zaccheo noted.

Not only are younger, often white, college-educated individuals moving to Greenfield, at a rate that is debated among landlords, but so are minority families that have been priced out of other cities. The Hispanic population in Greenfield public schools increased by 4 percent in the past decade and by nearly 10 percent since the turn of the century.

Greenfield landlord Alex Agapov, who owns several apartments in both Greenfield and Montague, including two of the primary rental buildings in downtown Millers Falls, said the housing market is saturated right now, with little to no vacancies.

He says he keeps rents steady for at least some of his tenants out of gratitude for their being upstanding renters, but has found it harder to do in recent years.

Agapov said that when rents rose a few years ago but wages didn’t, it began to squeeze tenants.

For him and for other local landlords, doing some form of a background check is important.

They look for clean credit and a good rental history, and some also look into a person’s criminal history. Agapov says he’s fine to be the guinea pig for people who don’t have a rental history, but he has to be more judicious when making his selection in those cases.

Ms. Zaccheo said that from her perspective, tenants must have good housing and work references, a stable source of housing income following the 30 percent rule, “and then we choose the best applicant from a group of qualified applicants.”

Housing Court

One thing many landlords are on the same page about is Housing Court and what they view as its heavy favoritism toward tenants.

Agapov said if Housing Court were “fairer” toward landlords, “it would be more attractive to investors to acquire more properties.”

“The pendulum needs to start swinging back to the middle,” Mayor William Martin agreed.

The city’s building and health inspectors are often tied up in court, he said, which can be a burden to the city.

They go to court to present cases and the facts from their inspections.

Plus, he said he was recently told that they need the city attorney with them when in court, so the cost of this will rise.

Opioid complications

The opioid crisis has also caused problems for some landlords.

“It’s one of the biggest problems nowadays,” Agapov said. “I didn’t see anything like that 10 years ago.”

The landlord explained that some of the renters he sees today struggle with addiction and their path toward recovery can make them have more challenges paying their rent religiously. “They are a potential risk,” from a business perspective, he said. “And there’s nobody to back them up.”

He finds renters who have struggled with opioid addiction are more likely to not be an upstanding tenant and could lead to an eviction. This makes them “risky” to rent to, but nonetheless he looks to give people a chance when he can. He says some apartments end up being vacant for two to three months because he’s still waiting for the right tenant.

Agapov recommends any additional education for renters today, maybe through the city or Greenfield Community College, that can help them understand their rights and how to properly keep up an apartment, something that didn’t used to be as much of a problem for someone who has been renting to Greenfield residents for two decades.

“If I have good tenants, I don’t raise their rent,” he said. “I always buy them a Christmas gift.”

If they are there for more than five years, “sometimes I buy renters insurance and pay for it,” he said. “They like it.

TOMORROW: Some solutions

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com