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.”