Sunday, December 23, 2007

City and Youth Try to Butt Out Cigarette Ads

On the outside of one convenience store in Dorchester, at the corner of Adams Street and Centre Street, they spread like a rash: 23 ads for 8 brands of cigarettes. The ads run from doors to windows, and around the corner to the side of the building. There are even ads partially blocked by other ads.

For Mohamed Chibou, a compliance officer in the City of Boston Tobacco Control Program, the sight is fairly common among convenience stores in areas such as Dorchester and Roxbury.

“As you look at the advertising in front, it’s mostly tobacco ads,” he said, “and there’s a reason for it to be there.”

Youth activists from Mission Hill, Dorchester, and other neighborhoods say the reason is to get more young people started on smoking. And, Thursday, city officials stood with them to announce tougher enforcement of city regulations on advertising.

According to a survey by the youth group Sociedad Latina, the neighborhood with the highest percentage of store ads promoting tobacco products was Dorchester, with more than 49%. The figures were almost as high for Mattapan, South Boston, and Mission Hill.

“You go to Centre St in West Roxbury, you won’t see these signs,” said Mayor Thomas Menino.

“What we notice with a lot of stores in Dorchester and Roxbury,” said Chibou, “is that pretty much the whole front of the store is covered in tobacco advertising, and much of it at eye-level for children.” Even some stores with fewer ads visible from outside have several bunched together around their checkout areas, where they’re hard to miss.

Youth activists have been campaigning for ad restrictions for the last four years. They say the store ads often appeal to the young by design and their eye-level.

“They see the advertisements and they think it’s cool, it’s colorful,” said Shanaya Coke, a member of BOLD (“Breath of Life Dorchester”) Teens.

The survey by Sociedad Latina also shows that more than one-third of the tobacco ads were in stores near a school, community center, or playground.

“A lot of kids between the ages of 4 and 8 are going to see these advertisements, not adults,” said 15 year-old Jonathan Ondrejko, a member of the Healthy Roslindale Coalition, at a City Council hearing on storefront ads earlier this month.

Tobacco companies agreed to restrict marketing to youth under a legal settlement with 46 states in 1998. Lorillard, which makes Newport cigarettes, has a youth smoking prevention program. The makers of Kool cigarettes, RJ Reynolds, say on their website that their standards include minimizing “exposure of minors to tobacco advertising.” But another corporate standard says that communication with adult smokers regarding their brand choices “is essential for effective competition.”

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, tobacco companies increased their marketing budgets in the first three years after the settlement by two-thirds. “Most of the increase,” says the campaign website, “was in retail store marketing, which is highly effective at reaching kids.”

Officials and advocates also put some of the blame for smoking by young people on magazine advertising and earlier cutbacks in prevention programs by the state. But the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids notes that studies show 75% of teens shop at convenience stores at least once a week.

“Those signs are not just for business inside the store,” said City Councilor Mike Ross. “I think those signs on the front are driving business outside the store for future cigarette purchases.”

City regulations restrict advertising by volume and placement. They limit ads to only 30% of the area in windows, and ads displayed more than 15 days require a permit. At a City Council hearing chaired by Ross earlier this month, officials talked about possibly changing the regulations. But it’s expected any attempt to ban ads for one type of product such as cigarettes would trigger a legal challenge.

Even supporters of restrictions acknowledge there will be a financial price for storeowners who get paid to display tobacco ads.

“There needs to be responsibility in advertising. I don’t think anybody disagrees with that,” said the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, Barbara Ferrer. “And some of the responsibility should be borne by storeowners as well.”

Officials announced their call for limiting ads at Tropic Food Market, a family-owned convenience on Blue Hill Ave, in Dorchester. The store sells cigarettes and displays some advertising inside, but no ads are visible from the street.

“Our concern is for the teens, young kids around here, what they’re exposed to,” said co-owner Karen Wint.

Wint says there’s also opposition to smoking at her church.

“We have three kids at home,” she said. “We don’t want them to get involved with these ads.”

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Foreclosure Rescue Vs. the Contractor Special

If there’s anything too hopeless for President Bush’s foreclosure prevention plan, it's the “contractor special” near Codman Square in Dorchester. Located in a three-decker (photo, right) on Whitfield Street, the condo is one reason why some believe the President’s plan falls short. And it helps explain why, as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino pointed out, the resetting of adjustable mortgages to higher interest rates is only one link in the subprime chain-reaction.

"The Bush administration's proposal is simply not enough,” the mayor said in a statement issued Thursday. “An astounding 80% of the City of Boston's foreclosure prevention clients in adjustable rate mortgages never even made it to the first rate reset. I hope that Congress understands that solving the nation's foreclosure problems is going to take a lot more than a little tweaking around the edges of the mortgage industry. We need Federal assistance to help save the working class neighborhoods across the nation that are being ravaged by the greed of the lending industry over the last decade."

Like Menino, others familiar with subprime lending in Boston agree the proposal announced November 6 by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is too limited. It would only apply to adjustable subprime mortgages starting from between January 2005 and June 2007, with resets scheduled for three years later. The five-year freeze on interest rates would be voluntary. And the result could still be a net gain overall for lenders and investors, since the diminished returns on interest might still be greater than proceeds from sales after foreclosure.

“The limited scope of the announcement will be disappointing for the millions of homeowners at risk of foreclosure,” said a statement from the CEO of the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America (NACA), Bruce Marks. “President Bush is abandoning the approximately one million homeowners already on the brink of foreclosure.”

But Marks credits the plan with setting a “new standard for government intervention,” comparing the interest rate freeze to the wage and price controls imposed by President Nixon in 1971. Those controls led to short-term relief, only to be followed by double-digit inflation less than three years later. If the current spasm of tight credit were to ease up and the housing market to reverse its downslide, then the comparison with Nixon’s strategy would seem more flattering.

Marks also credits Bush with avoiding a repetition of the government’s bailout of the savings and loan industry in the 1980s. But, while Marks emphasizes an influential step toward widespread relief on mortgage interest rates, the executive director of Americans for Fairness in Lending, James Campen, sees more obstacles.

“The plan, as it seems,” said Campen, “is going to involve a lot of individual processing to see if people meet the criteria.”

Even when a mortgage meets the criteria in the President’s plan, the property owner would have to ask for help. And to get help, the owner would have to live in the property that secured the mortgage. Real estate analyst John Anderson says that’s why the plan will have limited ability to stall foreclosures and their ripple effect on hard-hit markets such as Dorchester.

“Keeping mortgage rates fixed for 3 or 4 years is not going to have any effect,” he says. “It’s going to have no effect on a condo in Dorchester that nobody moved into.” Or at least where the owner on paper might not have a principal residence.

Which brings up the case of the three-decker with the “contractor special.” After its conversion to condos, all three units were sold to a single buyer in February, 2006, each for $330,000, and each with a mortgage from a different lender. On paper, the buyer was committed to using two of the units as his principal residence. On a third unit, the lender waived the occupancy requirement. Within 19 months, there were petitions to foreclose on all three units.

By October the “contractor special,” unit 3 at 43 Whitfield St, was on the market for $77,000. An ad says the unit has been gutted, with the start of a rehab and “some great extras,” including “the start of a marble bathroom,” not to mention a jacuzzi tub and “some new cabinets.”

At least unit 3 might be better than unit 1, which is on the market for only $63,000, and which an ad says is only “partially gutted.” Also mentioned in the ad: “There is no kitchen and no working bathroom.”

How could the price have fallen so much in less than two years? Was it wear and tear from the occupants? Were the units way overpriced (and over-appraised) when they sold in 2006? What’s more definite is that the seller in 2006 made more than half a million dollars, minus anything that might have been spent on improvements. The million-dollar three-decker might be an aberration, but sales prices were real enough to feed comparisons by appraisers, even for transactions in which the buyer was an owner-occupant who kept up mortgage payments. Now those buyers could once again find their property values affected by figures from 43 Whitfield St, though in the opposite way.

“You put these prices into ‘comps,’” said Anderson, “you’ll have prices dropping off the end of the table.”

“The problem is not the fraud,” he said. “It’s the people who buy the houses predicated on the fraud.”

Until the market started going downhill, there was always the possibility that even the worst case of a foreclosure could be followed by resale at a higher price. “The whole thing,” said Campen, “was based on being able to get refinanced.” And, as Campen notes, loans that went bad for buyers and investors still made money for another party, as may very well have been the case at 43 Whitfield Street.

The idea of a reprieve on ill-advised loans has also met with some backlash, since there would be a price passed on, at least to some investors. It’s possible the price of foreclosures avoided or deferred might be smaller than a loss of revenue from interest payments, but Anderson says the best way for a market to recover is to let prices fall as abruptly as possible.

“I’m a market person,” he says. “The quicker it crashes, and the quicker you get it over with, the better.”

But Anderson and Campen agree about the need for better regulation, even if it does little for people who’ve already borrowed trouble.

“Markets do work, as long as you have standards,” said Anderson.

And the tight credit that’s currently blamed for stifling demand has been equated with a loss of trust in financial markets. Lenders modifying loans on a large scale could be even one more reason for distrust by investors needed to replenish capital for mortgages.

“You can’t run an advanced market on trust. You have to have regulations,” said Campen.

The regulations that still apply to banks have largely been sidestepped by mortgage companies in the subprime debacle. That greater freedom to innovate did in a way expand home-buying opportunity, but innovation has also meant banks losing money as investors on mortgages they would have shunned as lenders. To make that less likely, Campen says the federal government should impose regulation on mortgage companies and appraisers.

“What really has dried up the market,” said Campen, “is a lack of regulation.”

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Northeastern, BRA Take Hits on Housing Deal

In Boston, the expansion of colleges and universities is even more normal than resistance from neighbors. What makes the latest acquisition by Northeastern University unusual, and even more a target for resistance, is that the property is an affordable housing complex, St. Botolph Terrace. And there’s one more reason: the acquisition also had to be approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Located at the crossroads of Lower Roxbury, the South End, and the Back Bay, the 47 subsidized units are on Mass. Ave, just around the corner from Matthews Arena. They’re also on a border between residential neighborhoods and institutions that has been lurching deeper and deeper into the Fenway and Lower Roxbury.

At a City Council hearing last week, university representatives tried to allay fears on the part of residents and elected officials. The university says it will honor a contract that would continue Section 8 rental subsidies at St. Botolph Terrace through 2023, but residents are asking for a commitment to affordable housing that’s even longer and less conditional.

The hearing took place across the street from St. Botolph Terrace. By the time the hearing was over, two elected officials—State Senator Dianne Wilkerson and City Councilor Chuck Turner—said the only way to give residents a firm commitment to affordable housing would be to let them buy the property, possibly in collaboration with a non-profit development group.

The Northeastern University Housing Corp. bought St. Botolph Terrace in November from Kenneth and Cecil Guscott for $10.4 million. “It was not purchased to move people out,” Northeastern’s director of government relations, Jeffrey Doggett, told councilors. “It was not purchased to move students in.”

Even Turner agreed the public process for allowing student housing at the complex might discourage conversion into a dormitory. But the day after the hearing, Northeastern’s Director of Communications, Fred McGrail, said there has yet to be a decision about whether to use the property eventually for academic or administrative space, or even student housing.

“A property became available right on the edge of the campus. We have to take a look at it,” said McGrail. “It’s prudent to take a look.”

Even if the Guscotts held on to St. Botolph Terrace, the units could still be a converted to market rate at the end of the contract with the US Dept. of Housing & Urban Development. There’s even worry this could happen before 2023 if HUD were to cut back enough on money for project subsidies.

“This could be gone in two to four years, if HUD gets out of the Section 8 business,” said Wilkerson.

“Northeastern doesn’t have a mission focused on the tenants,” said Turner, “and that causes fear.”

Two residents of the complex told councilors they moved in after having been homeless. One of them was a 22 year-old single mother, Mercedes Rodriguez.

“Am I going to end up on the street again?” she asked.

“It’s not easy to find a good neighborhood for your kids,” she said.

Doggett told councilors Northeastern would try to help avoid a possible shortfall in Section 8 subsidy money in the federal budget. But the director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, Michael Kane, said it’s “not clear” whether there would be money for rental subsidies at St. Botolph Terrace for even the next 17 years.

Worries about the future of Section 8 were also expressed at the hearing by a resident of a neighboring development, where a HUD contract is due to expire in 2011. The president of the Mass. Association of Community Development Corporations, Joe Kriesberg, says tightening budgets and shorter subsidy contracts for Section 8 will affect projects owned by non-profit developers and conventional private owners.

“Just the uncertainty, let alone whether or not there’s going to be funding,” he said, “gives owners an excuse, if not a rational reason, to want to pull out of the program.”

Also coming under fire at the hearing was the BRA, which had control over use of the property as an urban renewal project. Some councilors and tenant organizers say BRA officials promised as late as April 2006 that units at St. Botolph Terrace would stay affordable even beyond 2023. And they say the approval of the sale to Northeastern, which came one day after a petition in July, would make the affordability hinge on yearly appropriations in the federal budget.

The BRA approval took place after the departure of former BRA director Mark Maloney and before the arrival of the new director, John Palmieri, in November. There was a BRA observer at the Council hearing, but no BRA official giving testimony.

Wilkerson said tenants were “completely shut out” by the BRA.

“It was a secret transaction,” she said. “And why was that? It certainly does not engender confidence in the word of these institutions.”

“No institution should buy up affordable housing to put their students or anything else there,” said City Councilor Mike Ross.

“The way this was done was equally wrong,” he said. “I’m disappointed with the BRA. The BRA made a commitment to the Boston City Council they would not move on this issue until there was a resolution on the council or the community level.”

Though Turner said at the beginning of the hearing he wanted a commitment to long-term affordability at St. Botolph Terrace, he later agreed with Wilkerson that Northeastern couldn’t be trusted to keep the complex affordable.

“There’ just isn’t reason or history to do the ‘Trust me,’” said Wilkerson.

But the chair of the Council’s Housing Committee, Sam Yoon, said arranging a sale to residents and money to maintain affordability would take time, and that a short-term assurance from Northeastern might bring more peace of mind than hopes for something better in the long term. Said Yoon, “I want residents to go home tonight feeling they’re going to be OK, for at least three months.”

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Mixed Reaction to Plan for Catholic Schools

The consolidation of Catholic schools in Dorchester is meeting with mixed reactions among elected officials. Some view the closing of two schools and the infusion of as much as $60 million as the best hope for survival of Catholic education in Dorchester and Mattapan. But the schools that are closing—St. Peter’s (in photo) in Meetinghouse Hill, and St. Kevin’s near Uphams Corner—serve Dorchester’s most distressed neighborhoods.

It’s possible students from these neighborhoods will be served by the remaining Catholic schools. There are also plans to help the area near St. Peter’s School with new money for an after school program and a teen center. But the reaction Friday from area’s state representative, Marie St. Fleur, was negative.

“I’m really disturbed about the action of the Archdiocese today, where it closed two schools that are the heart of the immigrant community—a struggling immigrant community,” said St. Fleur, in a phone message to Neighborhood Network News. “It’s left me with a huge question,” she said, “about where was Christ in their decision Thursday.”

There was also a statement on the consolidation (“2010 Initiative”) Friday from State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry. She represents the Lower Mills and Cedar Grove neighborhoods, though she and St. Fleur are both alumnae of a Catholic high school that closed, Msgr. Ryan. Dorcena Forry also attended St. Kevin’s. In her statement, she called the consolidation “a difficult, but necessary undertaking that is critically important to the education network in our city's neighborhoods.”

There’s total agreement that Catholic schools in Dorchester and Mattapan have to adjust to changes in population. For St. Fleur, that would have meant keeping schools open where she believed there was the most population growth. But observers say the changes in population—and in the engagement between church and community—make the old parish school model obsolete, especially for financial support. Where schools are closing, some families will give up convenience, but the end of parish boundaries for enrollment could also mean more choices. The five surviving schools (not including St. Brendan’s, which will remain independent) will have a joint administration, and plans call for changes in curriculum. There will also be renovations of the school buildings, which are all at least 50 years old.

“It is important to keep in mind that Dorchester has already watched as four other parish schools, including my alma mater M.R.M., closed one-by-one over the last seven years,” said Dorcena Forry. “I believe that, unless a concerted effort of the kind presented by the 2010 Initiative is earnestly advanced, several more schools in our community would inevitably suffer a similar fate.”

After the consolidation plan was announced, Mayor Menino invited students affected by the consolidation to apply to the Boston Public Schools. Officials will convey that invitation in a letter to 300 students at the two K-8 schools that are closing. According to the city, almost 400 students who were in a Catholic school last year now attend the Boston Public Schools, not including students in the three exam schools.

Note: special meetings to let families affected by the consolidation learn about options in the Boston Public Schools will take place Wednesday, December 5, 6-7;30 p.m., at the Codman Square Health Center, 637 Washington St., Dorchester; and Thursday, December 6, 6-7:30 p.m., at the Lower Mills Branch Library, 27 Richmond St., Dorchester.