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Somerville aims to aid tenants in condo conversions

SOMERVILLE -- Swept up in a wave of condominium conversions, the city of Somerville is trying to increase protections for tenants whose lives are being disrupted by development.

Second-term Mayor Joseph Curtatone proposed increasing notification times -- to up to four years -- that landlords would be required to provide before converting their multifamily buildings into condos and selling off the units. He also wants to extract a ``relocation benefit" from landlords and limit how much they may raise rents during the 12 months before conversion.

Tenants' rights and property owners' interests have clashed in recent years as the former working-class suburb of Boston has become a popular destination for young professionals drawn to trendy Davis Square and the city's proximity to Cambridge and downtown Boston. The city's new slogan: Somerville Rocks!

``We've been a very dynamic hotbed of condominium conversions," Curtatone said. Condos ``have been very good for the economy and diversifying our tax base. At the same time, we want to strike a balance between developers' and landlords' and tenants' rights."

Public comments on his proposal were due yesterday. The city clerk said opinions are running against it. ``The e-mails from Belmont, Reading, Cambridge, and Boston [landlords] are coming in against it," Curtatone said. He said he is considering a second public hearing on the issue.

Street after street of two- and three-family homes have been converted in recent years, first along the Cambridge line and then spreading deep into the city. Between July 2004 and June 2005, 578 condominium units were created, a 70 percent increase over the prior fiscal year, the city said. Current conversions are expected to meet or exceed last year's pace.

Owners and their real estate agents, who also profit when they act as listing agents on newly converted units, vehemently oppose any obstacles to the lucrative conversions. But some Somerville landlords are city residents who own small multifamily properties and argue the proposal increases the risks of homeownership.

Two years ago, Matthew Shuman, a civil engineer for the town of Bedford, purchased a two-family near Ball Square. He lives on the ground floor and rents the larger, top-floor unit so he can afford his $3,400 monthly mortgage, including taxes and insurance. While he has no plans to convert, he said he purchased it knowing he had the option if his finances became strained.

``I don't want to sound like I'm anti-tenant -- I'm not," said Shuman, who saved to buy while he lived with roommates. ``My tenants help me pay the mortgage. I just think the city needs to be promoting homeownership."

On the other side of the issue is Eugene Kwasniewski. Unemployed and psychologically disabled, he receives disability benefits and a federal subsidy to rent in a 12-unit building outside Davis Square. After the building was purchased in November, he said the new landlord asked him to leave without giving notice.

Somerville's current rules for conversion require landlords to give tenants one year's notice of a conversion; the elderly, handicapped, and those with low incomes have two years. Curtatone wants to raise that to two and four years, respectively, in buildings with four or more units. [Boston requires one and five years, for buildings with four or more units.]

Under current law, landlords pay $300 in relocation reimbursement to low-income tenants. The new provision would require paying the greater of $2,000 or one month's rent to tenants, and $4,000 or two months rent to the elderly, handicapped, and those with low incomes, said Maeghan Silverberg, Curtatone's spokeswoman. The mayor said the new ordinance would streamline the process and be more ``fair and predictable."

Kwasniewski, the renter, said he needs ample time to find a new apartment because area rents are so high.

``I'm fortunate," he said. ``I'm 60 years old, and I can walk around. For a number of people who are seriously disabled, they really need that time."

Kimberly Blanton can be reached at blanton@globe.com.

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