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City Council hears St. Botolph tenants’ fears

Jin-ah Kim

Responding to tenants’ concerns, the Boston City Council’s Committee on Housing held a public hearing last Thursday about Northeastern University’s recent purchase of St. Botolph Terrace, a complex of affordable housing apartment units subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson joined City Councilors Chuck Turner, Sam Yoon and Michael Ross at the Susan Bailis Assisted Living Center in the South End to listen to testimony from St. Botolph residents, as well as representatives from Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants (MAHT).

Despite the Council’s official invitation, John Palmieri, the new director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), did not attend the hearing, though a BRA staff member came to listen to the concerns in his place.

“We struggle hard for affordable family housing. It’s a precious commodity,” said Turner. “We are very concerned when the Boston Redevelopment Authority makes commitments to officials and to tenants in terms of their commitments to preserve a specific piece of affordable housing, and then, from our perspective, throws them away without any dialogue.”

Turner and the tenants testified that former BRA Director Mark Maloney stated at a City Council hearing on April 18, 2006 that the BRA would consult the tenants about the apartments’ long-term affordability in the event of a sale. Palmieri last month succeeded Paul McCann, who had served as the authority’s interim director since Maloney stepped down in January.

The BRA approved Northeastern’s application to buy St. Botolph Terrace on July 19. The sale was completed on Nov. 15.

Ross said that the BRA made a commitment to protect affordable homeownership in the city, and said he is “disappointed” at the authority’s “removing a safety net for the residents.”

The authority objects to that characterization, and says it is only doing its work.

“We don’t have the right to reject a potential buyer,” said BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker in a telephone interview.

Shumaker said that the purchase of the 52-unit complex at 351-367 Massachusetts Avenue by Northeastern allows the BRA greater control over the property and further protects the tenants and the affordable housing units. She said she was not aware whether or not the BRA notified St. Botolph’s tenants of the approval of the complex’s sale in July.

“The most important thing for people to understand is that the tenants will be protected through 2023 and beyond,” she said.

However, the new contract allows Northeastern to convert the apartments to market-rate houses, dormitories or condominiums in 2023, when the current HUD subsidy contracts expire, according to MAHT Director Michael Kane.

Even worse, Kane said, Northeastern can walk away from its obligation to keep the complex as affordable housing any time if a threatened cut in federal funding is realized.

At the hearing, Turner echoed fears voiced by a handful of St. Botolph tenants during a recent rally that the university will raise rents or convert the complex’s 52 units to dormitories.

“Northeastern is not in the business of managing family housing,” said Turner. “It raises a concern that an institution that isn’t in the business of managing and renting family housing buys a family housing [property].”

Wilkerson said that for the last few years, schools have aggressively expanded and challenged “the existence of low-income, mostly minority residential community” in Boston.

“Nobody believes that they are paying $2,000 for living in Roxbury … because we are in competition with the students and that’s what they pay,” said Wilkerson.

Jeffrey Doggett, director of government relations for Northeastern University, said that the university would keep the building as public housing until 2023, and would not make the final decision on its future use without talking to tenants.

On other issues, like potential financial shortfalls in HUD subsidies, Doggett said the university has yet to take a position.

“There is no agreement, there is no plan, there is no idea that we can come up with in the first two weeks of the university owning this property,” he said. “I don’t feel that it’s necessary to make guarantees today about what would happen if HUD cuts funding [or] what would happen in 2023.”

St. Botolph tenants Rosalind Dawson and Mercedes Rodriguez see things differently.

“We don’t want our babies to go through hell in 2023, which is just down the road,” said Dawson, who has lived in the complex for over 20 years. “It’s not that far away. These kids grow up so fast.”

Rodriguez, 22, holding her one-year-old son in her arms, said she just wanted to be free from the concerns.

“I am stressed out emotionally and physically. Every time I come home, I get letters and I get stuff on my door,” she said, her eyes welling with tears.

The councilors agreed with the tenants’ calls for resolution.

“I don’t think that letting this situation continue without any guarantees beyond 2023 is a healthy situation for the community,” said Turner.

Turner urged Northeastern President Joseph Aoun to sign a written agreement to keep the building affordable through at least 2023. While the university has consistently said it will do so, the councilor noted that today’s verbal statements might not hold Northeastern accountable 16 years from now — epecially considering the BRA’s failure to keep a promise made just last year.

“Paper and pen speak louder than verbal conversation, and hang around longer,” said St. Botolph tenant Christopher Roberson, who is a court official. “A verbal talk is not going to stand up in court. We need to have it in writing.

“Colleges are buying up everything. It’s got to be ceased because if this continues the next 20 years, the homeless rate is going to be so astronomically high,” he added. “Who can afford to live here anymore?”