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States toughen rules against short-notice condo conversions

When a retired Malden, Mass., couple went to their mailbox one day last spring, greeting them was a notice from their longtime landlord. The apartment building was being converted into condominiums and they had to get out.

They were among thousands of tenants - low- and moderate-income, elderly, or handicapped - across the United States, who each year suddenly find themselves facing an unwanted move.

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Such short-notice, if not instant, evictions, however, may soon become all but a thing of the past.

At least 18 states and a growing number of communities elsewhere now have measures on their books to ease the impact of condominium conversions on tenants of the dwellings involved. Similar legislation is being pushed in close to a dozen other states.

Condominiums, an arrangement under which individual apartments, within a building or complex, have separate owners, have become increasingly common in many sections of the nation during the past two decades.

The newest and one of the most far-reaching of the condo conversion statutes, signed into law Nov. 30 by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, requires a minimum one-year notification period before anyone can be forced to move. Those age 62 or older, handicapped people, and low- or moderate-income individuals and families, are entitled to two years' advance warning, with up to two additional years in instances when more time is needed to find comparable accommodations at an affordable rent within the same community.

Rental increases during the notice period are restricted to no more than 10 percent annually or the rise in the consumer price index during the previous 12 months, whichever is least.

In addition, the condo developer must pay up to $750 for moving expenses, and up to $1,000 for the senior citizen, disabled, or poor.

While in some respects the new statewide law is less restrictive than home-rule measures in a few Bay State communities, which embrace virtual life-tenancy rights for certain tenants in buildings being turned into condominiums, its boosters contend it goes a lot further than some real estate interests wanted.

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They are unhappy over a provision allowing individual communities, by two-thirds vote of the local governing body, to impose alternative regulations that could make condo conversions even tougher, perhaps even ban them.

Such ''more-stringent standards'' could ''help dry up private investment in the housing market,'' warns Richard Lundgren, president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. This might encourage developers to shy away from building dwellings and instead concentrate on office buildings and shopping centers, he suggests.

Although supportive of other portions of the new law, which he views as ''providing for an orderly process for (condominium) conversions,'' Mr. Lundgren and colleagues in the residential realty field sought to eliminate the two-thirds feature.

But the Massachusetts Tenants Organization and others pushing the legislation , refused to back down. Through the intervention of Governor Dukakis the local option for tougher or weaker condo conversion standards prevailed.

In terms of advance notification, the Massachusetts law is particularly protective since in most states which require any arrangement renters have only a few months's warning.

The model condominium law, drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State laws (NCCUSL), provides renters be advised 120 days before an apartment is to be placed on the market.

Over the past four years 10 states, starting with Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and West Virginia in 1979, have adopted some version of the model statute.

Some of them, like Rhode Island, provide more time for elderly or handicapped tenants to relocate or buy their apartment but generally stick to three-month notification for other occupants of units being converted, says John McCabe, the NCCUSL's legislative director.

He notes that ''conversion is more of a political issue than others covered by the model condominium act,'' drafted by his group in 1977 and amended in 1980 , is much more encompassing. ''It deals with all phases of this type of housing, '' including ownership, maintenance, and financing, he explains.

Besides Massachusetts, at least three other states - Connecticut, Missouri, and Nebraska - have within the past year enacted laws on condominium standards.

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