Could One Determined Former Tenant Bring Down Boston’s Most Infamous Landlord?

Roach infestations. Mold problems. Overflowing dumpsters. Residents of Alpha Management’s Boston-area apartment buildings have suffered all kinds of horrors over the years.

Illustration by Mark Matcho

After another day of attending online graduate classes from her one-bedroom apartment in the summer of 2020, Mary Stathos rose from her desk to heat up what felt like her millionth can of soup for dinner that week. As she padded around her kitchen, she avoided the spots where the green, yellow, and brown flooring was peeling back. Once her meal was ready, she retreated to her bedroom, where she had crammed her dining room table into the corner. As she tried to enjoy her soup as best she could, she wondered how her living situation had gotten to this point.

It all began when Stathos had discovered the deteriorating linoleum while deep-cleaning her apartment. Pulling it back to vacuum any crumbs that had fallen beneath, she found the floorboards were rotted through, she says. Stathos had called her landlord, only to have her requests for maintenance go unanswered. Terrified her table would fall through the floor, she dragged it into her bedroom. Shortly after, the seal on her fridge broke, preventing the door from shutting properly and allowing the cold air to escape, she says, limiting her diet to nonperishables. Again, she says, she called her landlord to fix the problem. Again, nothing.

As bad as the situation was, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Stathos’s woes had actually started the year before, when she signed the lease in 2019 for her Medford apartment in the midst of a frantic last-minute house hunt. During her first year at 63 Fellsway West, Stathos explains, fire escapes barricaded by trash and out-of-order washing machines were the norm. One time, she and her neighbors found themselves locked inside the building because the front door was broken, she recalls. They say they got no response from management until they dialed the fire department, which led to someone finally coming to repair the door.

Now, Stathos says, she found herself with a broken fridge and a rotting floor. The 27-year-old clinical therapist fastidiously avoided her kitchen as she awaited repairs, restricting the already limited space she had. But even after two months, she recalls, Alpha Management hadn’t responded to her maintenance requests.

They had, however, sent her an offer to renew her lease for an additional $75 a month. Coming off a spell of COVID-related unemployment that had left her unable to pay rent for three months, Stathos couldn’t believe Alpha’s representatives had the nerve to ask for more money for an essentially unusable unit. “They were so aggressively harassing me about rent, and this was while I had ongoing maintenance requests for the floor,” says Stathos, who ultimately decided to withhold her August and September rent payments until the floor was fixed in October. “They were calling at minimum one time a day and at most three times a day. Then you’re sitting in your bedroom at the kitchen table, which can’t be in the kitchen, eating soup because it’s something you can make that [doesn’t need to] be refrigerated. It’s a lot of asking, How did I get here? ”

The answer was simple: Stathos had entered the noxious orbit of Alpha Management owner Anwar Faisal, previously the subject of an article in the January 2014 issue of this magazine thanks to his track record of renting out rundown units. Since purchasing his first property in Boston in 1986, Faisal has been one of the area’s most complained-about landlords, with problems ranging from bedbug and cockroach infestations to overflowing dumpsters to broken window locks that led to break-ins. Stathos’s problem was just one in a string of many. Faisal and his representative declined to comment and fully respond to questions sent to them by Boston. “I spoke to Anwar and his attorneys do not recommend him to give any comments as Boston magazine twisted all the words from his past interview and never wrote any good word in regards to Anwar’s donations, community, and student support. This is really very sad,” the representative wrote in an email. In an earlier email, that representative sent an inspection certificate for 63 Fellsway West from the city of Medford’s building department certifying the building had sufficient means of egress for 20 units total.

While a lot has changed since Boston first wrote about Faisal, it appears as though his habits as a landlord have not, leaving many tenants deeply unhappy about their living situations—including Stathos. In the midst of her despair, she spotted a flier left in the lobby of her building from the Greater Boston Tenants Union that included an email address for residents in need of assistance. Stathos reached out to a representative, who explained that organizing with other tenants could force Alpha’s hand to stop raising rents and start fulfilling maintenance requests.

Not willing to go down without a fight, Stathos began talking to her neighbors and found most people had similar problems, if not worse. One person, she learned, had mold growing on their walls. Another tenant told Stathos that the unit had a severe infestation of mice and cockroaches. A woman in the building next door, also owned by Alpha, said her apartment had a fire before she moved in and the smoke damage was never cleaned. Though Stathos eventually managed to get her problems fixed after filing a complaint with Medford’s health department, many people, unaware of their rights as tenants, were still living with their issues, just barely hanging on. If they all banded together, Stathos told them as she knocked on doors and messaged neighbors, they might have a shot at pushing Faisal to finally get his act together.

Under Stathos’s guidance, it didn’t take long for the residents of 63 and 53 Fellsway West to form the Alpha Tenants Union, dedicated to ensuring its members had safe, clean, and affordable housing through the power of collective bargaining. Sixteen of the two buildings’ residents signed a letter to Alpha the following January declaring their demands.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, this wasn’t Faisal’s first experience with angry tenants. Back when he bought buildings in Medford and Malden nearly 10 years ago and raised rents, the landlord also faced resistance, according to Steve Meacham, the organizing coordinator for City Life/Vida Urbana, a Jamaica Plain–based racial equity nonprofit that works on housing issues. While the nonprofit tried to help residents organize and protest Faisal’s rent hikes, eventually many tenants got fed up and decided to move out. This time, though, something felt different. Because of the threat that COVID-related financial struggles have posed to many renters across Boston, tenants unions like Stathos’s were sprouting up everywhere—and as their numbers grew, so too did their power.

Was Boston’s most notorious landlord about to meet his match?

Many renters think that when they sign their lease, they also sign away their negotiating power. But joining a tenants union gives them the opportunity to seize that power back.

Many renters think that when they sign their lease, they also sign away their negotiating power. But joining a tenants union gives them the opportunity to seize that power back: Similar to workers unions, these groups are able to win benefits for members (think: building repairs, limited rent hikes, and even amenities such as free parking) through collective bargaining—even more so when there are obvious code violations that can be used as leverage. Most commonly formed when buildings are purchased and rents increased, some unions even manage to guarantee concessions in a binding agreement. It’s easy, after all, for landlords to get rid of one annoying tenant. But an entire building? That’s a headache.

Perhaps most important, tenant union organizers inform residents of rights they never knew they had, particularly when it comes to rising rents or unbearable living conditions. While Massachusetts is often touted as a “tenant-friendly state,” the reality is that under the law, the burden of reporting health-code violations in apartment buildings falls to the people who live there. Tenants can go to their local board of health or Boston’s Inspectional Services Department when an issue arises that violates housing code. But if they aren’t aware of that, or don’t have the time or resources to make such a complaint, landlords can basically get away with anything. Meanwhile, those who do take individual action run the risk of retaliation—which means people who can’t afford to move have the most to lose when they have a problem. “The system is failing,” says Nicole Eigbrett, director of community organizing for the federally designated antipoverty group Community Action Agency of Somerville. “It is failing tenants and really harming the most vulnerable residents in our community.”

Stathos found all of this to be true when talking with her neighbors: Many didn’t even know they could report their issues with the building to Medford’s health department. But she also found a critical mass of residents who were willing to fight back. In the letter the newly formed union sent to Alpha in January 2021 (cc’ed to the Medford Patch and Medford Transcript), the group demanded no rent increases or evictions during the pandemic and timely responses to maintenance requests. Just as the tenants had hoped, the media outlets reported on the letter, and within 24 hours of the stories being published, Stathos says, they saw results: Though Alpha refused to officially acknowledge the union’s demands, the landlord did remove trash from the fire escapes, repair a broken basement floor, and address mold growth.

Feeling emboldened by the initial improvements, the union began to expand its reach, encouraging residents in Faisal’s Allston buildings to start reporting their own dangerous living situations. Stathos also spoke at a virtual meeting of the Boston Planning & Development Agency in February on behalf of the union, condemning a new 38-unit residential building in Allston that Faisal and his team have been trying to get approved under his other company, Nora. “While I do understand building in Boston is a priority,” Stathos said from her unit in Alpha’s Medford building, “I want to raise concerns about allowing Alpha Management to build another building in Allston. Faisal and Alpha Management are notorious for providing unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions.” Many attendees at the February hearing agreed, including a member of the Greater Boston Tenants Union and former tenants from other buildings. The Allston Civic Association also condemned the project in light of Faisal’s history (project approval was still pending at press time).

It felt like the union’s work was picking up steam. But what members didn’t know was that Faisal had a few tricks up his sleeve, too.

On April 20, 2021, Stathos was walking into the lobby to pick up food when the mailman handed her a white envelope. She opened it to find a letter from Faisal’s and Alpha’s lawyer demanding that she and the union stop slandering, libeling, and defaming Faisal. It was exactly the kind of tactic Eigbrett says landlords use to intimidate tenants when they fight back—but unlike many others, Stathos had resources. “He’s doing all kinds of things and he’s not being stopped,” she says now. “Why would he stop with me, this young girl organizing against him? I don’t think he realized I know what I’m doing.”

With the support of the Greater Boston Tenants Union, Stathos raised funds for an attorney, who subsequently sent a response to Alpha’s and Faisal’s lawyer. The threat from their lawyer, he said, was not based on any legitimate legal grounds, and if Alpha and Faisal did go ahead with a lawsuit, they could expect a countersuit.

Alpha didn’t respond to Stathos’s lawyer, she says. The company also ghosted Stathos when she called about re-signing her lease that spring. Stathos might have dismissed the lack of response as normal given how long they had ignored her maintenance requests, but the one time she did get someone on the phone, she says she was told that her rent might increase based on her unionizing—which she pointed out to the employee would be illegal retaliation.

The nail in the coffin came when Stathos went to pay her July rent—and found her account in the online payment portal had been shut down. A check subsequently mailed to management was never cashed, she says. Shortly before the end of her lease on July 31, Stathos received a notice saying Alpha would not be extending her lease, and that she needed to vacate her unit. “They bullied me out of my apartment,” she says. (The Alpha Management representative wrote in an email to Boston that “[Stathos] was trespassing and disturbing the tenants but no one was ever threatening her.”)

Even for tenants who aren’t forced to leave, moving out is often easier than staying and fighting. Take Sean Kolczynski, a fourth-year student at Northeastern University: He and his roommates moved into a four-bedroom Alpha-managed apartment near campus in September 2020, each paying $1,350 a month in rent. While their problems didn’t reach the level of Stathos’s, they found the management company wasn’t responsive to their needs: Alpha, Kolczynski says, regularly left its emergency maintenance line unanswered; failed to notify residents about construction or maintain scaffolding, which posed a safety hazard; and didn’t provide coin machines in the laundry room. At the end of his lease, Kolczynski left, tired of dealing with it all. He found out too late that there was a union that could have helped improve conditions and save him from the headache of a move. “I would’ve loved to have joined,” he says. “I’ve always asked how we can defend ourselves to a landlord.”

Thankfully for the remaining Alpha renters, Stathos’s exodus from her Medford building didn’t mean the total demise of the union she formed. She says she plans to stay involved and keep organizing, and is considering taking Alpha to court for retaliation—but not because she wanted to stay in her decrepit apartment. If countless fines from the Boston Inspectional Services Department can’t stop Faisal, who isn’t new to housing authorities, from doing this again, perhaps a court battle will at least encourage positive change. “There’s a system that’s enabling [him],” she says.

If you walk into 63 Fellsway West today, you can tell many of the residents are new, blissfully unaware of the struggles of those who came before them. Fresh labels with new names are affixed over old ones on the mailboxes. Letters addressed to previous tenants like Stathos are piled up in open mailboxes. A man coming in from taking out the trash mentions he only moved in a few months prior. Like many of the newer tenants, he hasn’t heard about the union yet and doesn’t have much to say about the landlord. For now, at least, it appears Faisal has emerged victorious again—that is, until another cycle of knocking on doors, posting fliers, and fighting for tenants’ rights perhaps begins anew.