PROVINCETOWN — Nearly every job on Outer Cape Cod, from lifeguard to psychiatrist, is difficult to fill because housing is so scarce. Businesses, nonprofits, and town governments are staggering as they try to do their work without enough people.
A loss of rental units in the 1970s led to the state’s Condo Conversion Act of 1983, and that law could play a role in mitigating the current crisis, according to Mac McCreight, a tenant law expert who recently retired from Greater Boston Legal Services.
The law aims to protect tenants when the owner has an “intent to convert” a rental property to condos. It requires notification of tenants and can provide them with two to four years of continued tenancy and help them secure comparable housing.
The Independent reported in August 2021 and again in June 2022 on the situation facing several tenants at a six-unit property at 28-32 Standish St. Tenants there worry their landlord plans to convert the apartments to condos.
“Intent to convert” was defined in a 1989 amendment strengthening the law. Factors to be considered in determining whether an owner has the intent, the law says, include having the units measured to facilitate a sale and having the land surveyed for the purpose of conversion.
A person who identified himself as an insurance agent came to all six units last October, tenants Annmarie Piccarelli and Allan Lukauskas told the Independent, and used a laser measuring device to take detailed interior measurements. A surveyor was on the property in June and again in August, and Piccarelli said that when she asked him the purpose of his work, he said it was for condo documents.
Detailed interior plans of Piccarelli’s unit made by local architect Ted Smith have been filed with the historic district commission, dated June 2022.
Owner Maria Cirino told the Independent she is familiar with the Condo Conversion Act and she is definitely not violating it. “We haven’t determined yet what the plans for the property are,” Cirino said.
Cirino said she did not know if there had been surveyors or architects at 28-32 Standish and added it would not be unusual if there had been. “If we’re going to replace fences, or do repair work on decks, things like that,” she said, “we typically have surveys done to make sure that we’re not encroaching on anybody’s property.”
Some towns have put planning boards in the loop, requiring them to hold a public hearing and issue a permit before a condo conversion can proceed. But no town on Cape Cod has done that. Provincetown voted down such a proposal in 2015. It would be up to a judge to decide if “intent to convert” exists in Cirino’s case, McCreight said, and there are risks to tenants in taking matters to court.
From 1979 to 2021, the three buildings at 28-32 Standish Street were owned by Marilyn Mervar Rodes and her husband Ted Rodes, who is now deceased.
In 2021, Mervar Rodes told her seven tenants that she was ready to retire and sell her buildings. Three of them who spoke on the record, Piccarelli, 64, Lukauskas, 70, and Dan McKeon, 67, said many of the tenants there had been through this experience before at other rental properties in Provincetown and knew that the end of their tenancy was likely in the cards.
When properties here go on the market, they rarely remain year-round rentals for long. The market value of residential property has become tied to the potential income from short-term rentals — not to the income earned by people who work here. A 2019 study by UMass Dartmouth showed that potential income from short-term rentals is more than double the potential income from renting year-round.
Intent to Convert?
Cirino and her business partner Lyn Plummer took ownership of 28-32 Standish St. on Sept. 1 of last year. Lukauskas and Piccarelli had leases that ended Oct 1. Mervar Rodes had told McKeon he had to be out of the property by Sept. 1, but he had prepaid his rent for that month, so, after consulting a lawyer, he did not leave.
Cirino and Plummer allowed McKeon to pay rent for a further 45 days and move out on Nov. 15.
According to Piccarelli and Lukauskas, Plummer sent letters to all the remaining tenants that September saying they could pay their prior monthly rent until April 1, when their tenancy would end. If they wanted to pay a new, much higher “seasonal rent,” they could do so for May through October 2022. They would still need to be out on Nov. 1 so that Plummer could update the units for seasonal rentals, Piccarelli and Lukauskas said.
According to the Condo Conversion Act, if a landlord has “intent to convert” she is obligated to notify the tenants in writing whether or not they have a written lease. From the time of that notification, tenants are entitled to a waiting period of one year before they are removed. Low income or elderly tenants — defined by the law as over 62 — are entitled to two years of tenancy before they can be removed. If the landlord is not able to find suitable rental housing for a similar price in the same town, low-income or elderly tenants are entitled to four years of continued tenancy before they can be removed.
Tenants are also entitled to a right to purchase the resulting units, and to a limited reimbursement of moving expenses. The law is in force statewide, McCreight said, and individual towns can adopt stronger versions of it by a two-thirds vote of town meeting.
“When we bought it, it was free and clear of all tenants,” Cirino said of the Standish Street property. “Nobody actually was allowed to live there after we bought it. Nobody who lives there has ever told us they have a lease and we need to honor it.”
The law accounts for tenants without leases, McCreight said, but it does not apply to removals for any reason other than condo conversion.
According to McCreight, if the owner says, “ ‘I’m doing an upgrade, I’m not going to convert,’ there’s no state law that says you can’t displace people because you want them all out.” In other words, none of these protections apply if the owner can argue persuasively that she does not intend to convert the units to condos.
Boston, New Bedford, Lexington, Somerville, Amherst, and Abington have empowered officials to issue permits before a condo conversion — and to ask questions about whether notice was properly given. A tenant in those towns can make their case at a planning board or city council hearing.
On Cape Cod, such an appeal would need to go to Barnstable Superior Court or the Housing Court in Plymouth, McCreight said. Tenants have no right to free representation in these matters. Any eviction proceeding, even a preliminary filing that a judge dismisses, will post to a tenant’s credit report, making it extremely difficult to secure rental housing for years to come.
Fear of an eviction proceeding, and the cost of representation, can deter tenants from approaching the courts, McCreight said. And “intent” is relatively easy to dispute in court.
Tenants have not received notice of plans to convert the apartments on Standish Street because no such plans are in the offing, according to Cirino. “We haven’t planned anything,” she said.
Cirino and Plummer have done many condo conversions in Provincetown, but they also maintain several rental properties. Cirino said she has helped numerous people get home loans here, either by cosigning or by helping with the down payment.
“I do a lot of direct giving,” Cirino said. “The number one thing I do is try to identify people that are in what I call the rent trap, paying rent and never getting ahead. The single greatest thing an individual can do, if they have the means to do it for a person, is to help them get out of the rent trap.
“We’ve put braces on people’s teeth. We’ve sent their kids to college,” Cirino added. “And we’re always on the right side of the law.”
Cirino threatened to sue the Independent for reporting on her activities.
Piccarelli said she is not angry with Cirino and Plummer — but she is furious that town government did not protect her.
When no modifications to a building are needed for a condo conversion — that is, for multi-family properties that are already up to code — nothing comes to either the building dept. or the planning dept. to alert them, said Building Commissioner Annie Howard.
“The master deed would be filed directly with the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, and after it’s done, they forward it to the town assessor so the new properties can be assessed,” Howard said. There are no preapplication meetings or document requirements that would provide town staff with evidence of a planned conversion.
To do something about that, Howard said, “we would need a bylaw.”
Provincetown’s select board endorsed a condo conversion bylaw in 2015 that would have put the select board in charge of issuing permits for condo conversions. It required a two-thirds vote at the October 2015 town meeting but was approved by only 45 percent of the 232 voters present.