December 6, 2020

The week in business

HOUSING



a close up of Lydia Edwards in glasses looking at the camera: Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards


© David L. Ryan
Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards

Major Boston landlords agree not to evict tenants after moratorium expires

With the expiration of a state ban on evictions looming, Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Wednesday said some of Boston’s biggest landlords have pledged not to push tenants out of their homes after Oct. 17 if they can’t pay rent. Twenty-five major property managers ― including Davis Cos., Peabody Properties, and Trinity Financial ― agreed to work with tenants who owe back rent on payment plans rather than move to swiftly evict them, he said. Collectively, they control tens of thousands of apartments throughout Boston. Some City Council members want Walsh to take a stronger stand, perhaps even by moving on his own to block evictions in Boston. Councilor Lydia Edwards on Wednesday urged Walsh to ask the Boston Public Health Commission to issue an emergency hold on evictions, based on the risk of spreading COVID-19 by displacing people from their apartments. She also called for giving tax breaks to landlords who help struggling tenants, and for Walsh to join a growing push for broader solutions on Beacon Hill. The City Hall debate highlights what is at stake as Massachusetts’ toughest-in-the-nation eviction ban nears its end. That moratorium, passed by lawmakers in April, has likely blocked thousands of evictions in recent months, protecting tenants who lost their jobs and have fallen behind on rent. But US District Judge Mark Wolf has voiced skepticism about its legality and Governor Charlie Baker recently signaled that he isn’t likely to extend it past Oct. 17, preferring to work with state housing courts to manage cases in a way that protects both tenants and landlords. A federal eviction ban enacted by President Trump on public health grounds in September remains in effect through Dec. 31. But it offers less protection than the state moratorium and faces stiff legal challenges. Walsh said he hopes his deal with landlords will offer tenants protection well into next year. ― TIM LOGAN

MARKETING

Waltham-based Vistaprint expands its design reach

Can Vistaprint become the Etsy for the design needs of small businesses? The top Vistaprint executives in Waltham are betting on it. Parent company Cimpress said last Monday that it has acquired 99designs for an undisclosed amount, to be included under its Vistaprint umbrella, the best-known of the Cimpress businesses in the United States. 99designs, a 115-person business based in Melbourne, Australia, hosts a global marketplace of about 150,000 graphic designers and other freelancers. Just as Etsy’s network connects craftspeople with consumers, 99designs connects designers with small businesses that want art for logos, business cards, banners, and the like. Vistaprint, meanwhile, specializes in printing these products for small businesses; it added personalized face masks to its lineup this year. Sean Quinn, chief financial officer for Vistaprint and Cimpress, said acquiring 99designs will fill a void in Vistaprint’s offerings. “We want Vistaprint to be the marketing partner [of choice] to small businesses,” Quinn said. “This really brings up the capabilities to serve the design needs for print and digital products in a way we could never have done on our own.” He said 99designs will keep its name, at least for now, while being run as part of Vistaprint; 99designs’ chief executive, Patrick Lewellyn, will report directly to Robert Keane, the CEO of Cimpress and Vistaprint. Cimpress is headquartered in Ireland, but most of Vistaprint’s senior management team, including Quinn, are based in Waltham. (Keane is based in France.) The two businesses employ about 800 people in Greater Boston: 750 or so typically work out of the Waltham office, while 50 are in downtown Boston. Nearly all of the local employees work remotely now. Quinn said owning a platform that can connect buyers and sellers around the world has become more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. ― JON CHESTO

BIOTECH

Walden Biosciences raises $51m to discover treatments for kidney disease

A Cambridge company working on drugs to reverse kidney disease — rather than merely slow its progression ― was unveiled Tuesday after raising $51 million in venture capital. Walden Biosciences was created by Chicago-based ARCH Venture Partners and UCB Ventures, of Belgium. Both venture capital firms funnel early-stage funding to promising startups. Walden wants to develop medicines that treat common and rare forms of kidney disease. Those disorders afflict roughly 850 million people worldwide, according to the International Society of Nephrology. Most kidney disease treatments focus on medical conditions that contribute to the disorder, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and inflammation, company officials said. These approaches can be beneficial but don’t necessarily halt the progression to renal failure and the need for dialysis treatments and kidney transplants. Walden says it’s working on medicines that would focus on highly specialized kidney cells called podocytes to restore renal function. Podocytes play an important role in filtration. “Kidney disease is a public health crisis, and there is an urgent need to develop innovative therapies that directly target the disease and provide an alternative to dialysis or transplant,” said Blaine McKee, Walden’s chief executive. ― JONATHAN SALTZMAN

REGULATORY OVERSIGHT

SEC considers taking action against GE over defunct insurance business

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s staff has advised General Electric that it is considering legal action against the company for possible violations of securities laws, found during the agency’s investigation into the way GE accounted for costs associated with its now discontinued long-term care insurance business. GE disclosed on Tuesday that it recently received a “Wells notice” from SEC staffers, indicating that they may recommend that the commission bring a formal complaint soon. The SEC has been investigating several accounting issues at the Boston-based company, including the discontinued insurance business and GE’s revenue recognition practices, particularly with regard to long-term service agreements. This Wells notice specifically refers to an investor update in January 2018, in which GE revealed it would take a $6.2 billion charge and contribute up to $15 billion to reserves over a seven-year period for its North American Life & Health business. The insurer had underestimated how much it would cost to pay for the care of policy holders who lived longer than expected, a miscalculation compounded by low interest rates. North American Life & Health stopped writing new policies in 2006, but by that point had reinsured about 300,000 long-term care policies. The company’s then-chief financial officer, Jamie Miller, disclosed on an earnings call later that January that the SEC was investigating the process that led to that insurance reserve increase and the one-time charge, as well as revenue recognition and internal controls for long-term contracts. Later in 2018, GE disclosed that the SEC expanded its investigation to include GE’s Power business, after GE reported a $22 billion impairment charge related to that business, largely over a decline in the value of the energy-related businesses it acquired from Alstom in 2015. GE said in its latest statement that it continues to provide documents and other information requested by the SEC, and is otherwise cooperating with the ongoing investigation. ― JON CHESTO

LABOR

Remote-access software firm LogMeIn announces layoffs

One of the industry leaders in software for remote work is going through another round of layoffs. Boston-based LogMeIn said it’s trimming “less than 100” of its global workforce of 4,000, with Boston workers accounting for “less than 20” of the job cuts. The company provided no details about which of its product lines are affected, but a spokeswoman said that the laid-off workers have been encouraged to apply for new jobs at LogMeIn, suggesting that the move is more of a reorganization than a downsizing. In February, the firm laid off about 300 employees, or 8 percent of its workforce. Chief executive Bill Wagner told the Globe in July that many of the company’s employees will keep working from home even after the pandemic lifts. A spokeswoman said that as a result, LogMeIn needs fewer workers to operate its offices, such as the technical staff who maintain the office computer networks. — HIAWATHA BRAY

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