A group of 20 tenants, organizers and local supporters holding signs reading “Somervillain” and “LaCourt Lies” marched from the Davis Square T stop to the office of Mouhab Rizkallah, owner of LaCourt Realty and The Braces Place in Somerville, on Feb. 3. The protesters, organized by the LaCourt Tenants Union, demanded Rizkallah withdraw his lawsuit against former LaCourt tenant Alona Brosh, whom he has sued for $28,875 of “unpaid rent,” according to a demand letter to LaCourt Realty. Brosh was not present at the protest and did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
In their demand letter, the tenants union claimed that Brosh was pressured to sign an “intent to renew” letter under the threat that her residence would be placed on the market immediately if she refused. After Brosh’s roommates moved out in August 2020, she also moved out of the apartment because she was unable to find replacement roommates, according to the organizers.
“Despite her only having signed the letter indicating her intention to renew, since the term of her sublease ended LaCourt has claimed she is obligated not only to pay rent for a place where she no longer lives, but also to pay the rent of her two former roommates,” the demand letter from the LaCourt Tenants Union reads.
In addition to demonstrating solidarity with Brosh, the protesters also claimed that LaCourt raised rents and continued evictions during the pandemic, exploited its tenants and neglected its maintenance duties.
Speaking through a bullhorn on the steps of Rizkallah’s office while one of his employees filmed, Michael M. explained the important role of the tenants union to “[resist] the current housing situation in Boston.”
“People everywhere [are] exploited … by government institutions, by racism and patriarchy and imperialism,” Michael said. “If you start now, you can be an agent. … You can change the course of history. If you can convince yourself that you’re worthy, you can take part in the proper struggle to free the world.”
In an email to the Daily, Rizkallah said the union is making “nonsensical demands” rooted in baseless accusations.
“Ms. Brosh is an adult that made a contractual commitment that she failed to honor, and that failure caused harm,” Rizkallah wrote.
According to Rizkallah, LaCourt has approximately 3,000 tenants in the Boston area, and he said that LaCourt has a dedicated administrative and maintenance staff but conceded that it is not a perfect business.
Addressing further claims made by the protesters, Rizkallah said that LaCourt did not raise rents during the pandemic, with the exception of two apartments, and that certain tenants had renewed their leases at a higher rent prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.
“Those increases came into effect during the Pandemic, but were not created during the pandemic,” Rizkallah wrote. (At Rizkallah’s request, all formatting has been retained from the original correspondence.)
After marching through Davis Square, protesters chanted, “No justice, no peace!” and “You know what’s disgusting? Union busting!” outside of Rizkallah’s orthodontics office.
Minutes after they arrived outside Rizkallah’s office, the protesters were met by a police officer. After chatting with an organizer, the officer stood a few feet away across the street, leaning against his car and watching the remainder of the protest. Rizkallah declined to comment on whether he or someone in his office contacted the police.
Rizkallah said LaCourt was initially open to speaking with the tenants union to address any issues they might have been unaware of.
“It became quickly clear that there were no problems,” Rizkallah wrote. “We have stopped interacting with this hostile group, and most tenants resent them as pretending to represent tenants.”
Rizkallah repeatedly claimed the people protesting were members of the Greater Boston Tenants Union and not LaCourt tenants.
Maria, a LaCourt tenant who participated in the protest, said she looked into the union after experiencing maintenance issues in her building and feeling that LaCourt was blaming those issues on the renters. She was inspired to protest after hearing of Brosh’s case.
“If I were in [Brosh’s] position, I would hope people would show up for me too,” Maria said. “It’s really great that there is a space where we can all come together and then just be there for each other when things go wrong.”
Rizkallah defended LaCourt Realty against the protesters’ allegations.
“The[ir] basic premise… is that housing is a right, and no one should profit from it – They repeatedly stated this at their protest,” Rizkallah wrote. “The law of supply and demand makes affluent University areas such as Davis Square cost more, just as Tufts University costs more than a state school.”
Protesters repeatedly referenced the current lawsuit against Rizkallah, brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, for allegedly defrauding MassHealth by intentionally leaving children’s braces on for longer than necessary in order to collect more money.
Rizkallah explained to the Daily that he is suing the attorney general for defamation and is also planning to file a defamation lawsuit against a former LaCourt tenant and current tenants union organizer, Michael Ventura, for making “improper public statements” against him.
Rizkallah said that some of his tenants have left the union “because they knew they were at risk of a defamation lawsuit for the false public statements.”
Chloe Courtney Bohl contributed reporting to this article.