Friday, November 21, 2008

Gun in School Update

A judge in West Roxbury District Court has set bail for Walter West, Jr. at $100,000 and revoked his open bail in connection with another case.

“The defendant had a cocked and loaded 9mm handgun inside a school,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley. “With rounds in the chamber and the magazine, it presented an extremely dangerous situation in a building full of innocents.”

Also arraigned in connection with the disturbance yesterday morning at Boston English High School were two juveniles and two other 17 year-olds from Dorchester. The three older defendants will have to wear a global position monitoring system and observe an 8 p.m. curfew.

In a statement issued after the arraignment, Conley also said, “A case like this should be chilling to every parent and every person in the Commonwealth who cares for children’s safety, no matter where those children live or go to school.”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Teen with Gun Arrested at Boston English

A teenager with a firearm was arrested this morning at Boston English High School in Jamaica Plain.

Seventeen year-old Walter West of Dorchester is being charged with unlawful possession of a gun and ammunition, unlawful possession of a gun on school property, resisting arrest and trespassing. Also arrested for trespassing were two other 17 year-olds from Dorchester, Damien Oliver and Tyrone Rutledge, along with two juveniles.

Boston Police say the arrests followed a disturbance at the school that was reported around 9 a.m. Authorities say Oliver was the only one of the teens arrested who is a student at Boston English.

According to police, one of the teens was “focused on and reaching for” a backpack that, as it turned out, contained a loaded firearm.

Prosecutors say it was Oliver who let the other teens into the school through a side door. The chief communications officer for the Boston School Dept., Christopher Horan, says the door can only be opened from the inside, and he says students who come in through the regular entrance are randomly searched for weapons with a metal detecting wand.

Once the intruders were in the building, said Horan, they were quickly recognized as trespassers.

“It certainly is troubling,” he said, “but we were all impressed how quickly and appropriately the school responded.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Creating New Hotspots for Voter Turnout

The following post was published as an article in the Dorchester Reporter.

There were only two people standing on the traffic island in middle of Blue Hill Avenue with an Obama-Biden sign, but the horns could be heard for several blocks around.

It was election day in Grove Hall.

Propping up the blue sign were the founder of the local radio station, TOUCH FM 106.1, Charles Clemons, and the executive director of the Grove Hall Neighborhood Development Corp., Sister Virginia Morrison. Each of them held the sign with one hand and waved at the traffic with the other. And whenever they waved, someone answered with a triumphant honk.

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” Morrison exulted.

One reason to exult was the commanding vote for her candidate. Another was the increase in the Grove Hall vote count. In one of the areas near the same intersection, Ward 14, Precinct 1, the number of votes cast last Tuesday had risen over the figure for the 2000 presidential election—the last to fill a vacancy in the White House—by 66%. Since 1996, the presidential year count had increased by 80%.

What happened last week in Grove Hall was happening in several areas around the city where normal turnouts used to run lower than average. Most of these were areas where voters were predominantly people of color—from Asian-American in Chinatown to Latinos around Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square, along parts of Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester dominated by African Americans and other immigrants, whether from Haiti, Vietnam, or Cape Verde.

“People were engaged in this election,” Mayor Thomas Menino told Neighborhood Network News, “and they wanted to make changes, but also they had a candidate they believed in. That’s why we had such a huge turnout in the City of Boston.”

While votes cast in this year’s election around the country had increased over November, 2004 by no more than 5%, the increase in Boston was slightly short of 15%.

Compared with the election in November, 2000, the number of people voting in Boston last Tuesday had increased by 17.75%--despite an increase in the number of eligible people who didn’t vote. There were more votes cast in almost every ward. But one area traditionally known for high totals—Ward 20 (West Roxbury and Roslindale)—had an increase of less than 6% over the figures for the last two presidential elections.

At the other end of the chart were neighborhoods with very sharp increases, such as Chinatown (Ward 3, Precinct 8), with almost 96% over the total for 2000, and Dorchester’s Ward 15 (Fields Corner/Bowdoin-Geneva/Meetinghouse Hill) at more than 58%. Close behind was Ward 14 (Grove Hall/Four Corners/Franklin Field/Wellington Hill), with an increase over 2000 by more than 57%. Compared with November, 2000, vote totals for Roxbury wards increased anywhere from 41% to as much as 72%.

Less dramatic increases in the same areas had been seen in other recent elections, especially the one in November, 2006, when Deval Patrick became the first person of color to be elected Governor of Massachusetts. Vote totals in the same parts of the city also showed a higher percentage gain in city elections for 2003 and 2005, though not for 2007.

“So we’re seeing an excitement around getting civically engaged that, to a large degree we lost,” the deputy director of MassVOTE, David Ortiz, said in an interview last week on Neighborhood Network News. “We’ve always talked about the possibility of trying to get a holiday to happen on election day, and I have to say that I think everyone would agree that it seemed as though this election was a holiday. People were celebrating like it was the Fourth of July.”

Among the neighborhoods where voters came out early in large numbers was Chinatown.

“People were lined up before 7 a.m. when the polls opened,” said the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, Lydia Lowe. “The line was out to the end of the street.” To accommodate elderly voters waiting in line, she added, community activists even provided chairs.

Lowe acknowledges that some of the neighborhood’s increase in voters results from new housing developments, with many newer non-Chinese residents from Chinatown proper and the adjoining Leather District.

But Lowe says the turnout has also been increased by voter workshops that drew “several hundred” residents, mainly Chinese-speaking. Under an agreement with the US Dept. of Justice, those voters could use ballots almost entirely in Chinese, except for the names of candidates. In the workshops, the candidates’ names were transliterated into Chinese characters.

Lowe says what’s gained in translation is that immigrant voters who have become US citizens feel more competent to decide elections.

“It’s a sense of empowerment,” she said. “Since Chinatown’s vote has increased over the past ten years, politicians pay attention to Chinatown.”

Novel grassroots campaigns without explicit connection to candidates were going on in other parts of the city as well. In Jamaica Plain, teens in the Hyde Square Task Force tried to reach voters through phone banks and house calls. The message was that a “No” vote on Question 1 (the proposed abolition of the state income tax) was a vote for their future.

Ortiz says that kind of community networking is a two-way street, channeling the community’s support for potential candidates, and the candidates’ support for needs in the community.

“These community-based organizations can now say they have a base—they have a base of voters—in the sense of a community-based organization,” he said. “They will try to use that base to get them involved in the issues, get them involved in services that they have, or try to get them to become volunteers.”

Between November, 2000 and last Tuesday, the number of people voting in one area around Hyde Square (Ward 10, Precinct 6) increased by almost 62%. Over the same period, the number of registered voters in the precinct had risen by 90%.

And Ortiz sees a parallel between turnout and registration campaigns in Boston and the widespread use of grassroots volunteers in campaign Obama’s campaign around the country.

“I think what candidates have done,” he said, “is they’ve learned from organizations like MassVOTE that, if you try an organic approach, more holistic approach, an approach that’s sort of led from the bottom-up, that folks want to get more involved, that there’s more motivation, and because of that, more participation. And I think that more candidates are starting to see that and starting to mimic that model.”

Among those candidates Ortiz includes two getting off to a head start on campaigns for City Councillor at Large—Felix G. Arroyo and Jean Claude Sanon.

Also taking note of the grassroots factor is Sam Yoon, a City Councillor at Large who’s reportedly raising money for a possible attempt at higher office.

“A lot of these groups penetrated parts of the community that are harder to reach for either (presidential) campaign,” said Yoon.

While there was little doubt who would carry the state for President, Yoon said areas with the largest increase in votes were drawn by the urge to support a candidate—and to participate.

“Obama inspired that,” said Yoon. “His message inspired that kind of participation—that feeling that everyone mattered, no matter what their race, creed, or community.”

And Yoon says that meant getting voters to think, not as isolated individuals acting only on self-interest, but as people connected to other people.

“This is important in a democracy,” he said, “that we feel that connectedness to each other.”

But last year’s election for City Council showed that voter participation can also sharply decrease. Because this was an off-year election, with no race for mayor, a relatively low turnout had been expected. As it happened, there were barely enough at-large candidates to require a preliminary September election throughout the city, and even fewer candidates with competitive campaigns.

When the City Council and Mayor Menino passed a special measure to skip the preliminary election for Council at-large, there was little opposition, even from grassroots organizations. When the single at-large election took place in November, the number of voters plummeted, in some areas below the levels for 1999. The turnout figure was 13.59%.

Yoon was quick to note that one difference between last year and this year was the change in candidates.

“Now that these folks have been engaged,” said Yoon, “it’s up to us to keep them engaged in the political process.”

And Ortiz says there should be a carry-over of newly-engaged voters in years ahead.

“I think what’s left over will come with the face of those that are 18 to 29, because they were the ones that really turned out this year,” said Ortiz. “What we saw was a younger generation of voters that we’ve never seen before, which is completely different from the past, when it was older folk that were actually going out to vote in large numbers.”


After the article was published, Sister Virgina Morrison conveyed some of her thoughts on the election:

Yes, there was an organized effort to get out the vote and then there was the community utilizing every person, place, or thing to inform our community about the power and significance of their vote. There also was a sense of pride. Many saw hope. President-elect Obama and the soon-to-be 1st lady of these United States represent a sense of family and morality that has been lost. Two very educated, bright, and articulate husband and wife from humble beginnings aspiring to be president of what most see as the most powerful country in the world are worth helping to succeed.

Obviously, when the politicians see the potential votership they will pay attention to the needs and wants of a potentially very large constituency, which should translate into more services, etc. for any given community.

I feel, once the people see what their vote can do and has done, they will be married to the political system. They understand how important it is to be well informed, and how important it is for the candidate to be connected to the mainstream and grassroots. They now know what is expected from them and what they should expect from local and national politicians.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Boston Vote Strength Comparison

The following table shows how this year's presidential election vote cast in Boston compares with figures from the three previous presidential elections. For the most part, the figures show more relative gains in areas dominated by people of color--Chinatown, Roxbury, Mattapan, and parts of Dorchester.

Compared with the election of November, 2004, the number of registered voters in Boston had risen by 26.7% to 380,881. Despite the increase in the number of votes cast, there was also an increase in the number of eligible persons who didn’t vote. That’s why this year’s voter turnout (61.57%) was lower than the figure four years ago (68.61%).

For video reports on election day in Boston and reaction in Dudley Square the morning after the election, go to NNNonline.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Wilkerson, Church Leaders Discuss Exit

The exit strategy for State Senator Dianne Wilkerson will play out longer than was expected by even some of the closest supporters in her community.

It was reported this morning that church leaders in the Ten Point Coalition and Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston would follow the lead of the state senate and ask for Wilkerson’s resignation. But, before their scheduled announcement at the Charles Street AME Church in Roxbury, Wilkerson arrived there to meet them for what her campaign manager, Boyce Slayman, called a conversation that “had to happen.”

When the announcement took place shortly before noon, it was Wilkerson who broke the news by saying she would suspend the sticker campaign she began after losing the Democratic primary September 16 to challenger Sonia Chang-Díaz. And Wilkerson said she would make an announcement concerning the remainder of her current term after the final election, on Wednesday, November 5.

Slayman said the talks before the announcement touched on Wilkerson’s exit strategy and “what could or could not be said legally” due to corruption charges by the US Attorney Michael Sullivan. After the talks, the announcement was made with Wilkerson and the church leaders standing together.

“We’re simply standing with the senator today, recognizing that she is a part of our community. We dearly love her and will continue to pray for her,” said the president of the Black Ministerial Alliance, Bishop Gilbert Thompson.

The chairman of the Ten Point Coalition, Rev. Ray Hammond, said church leaders would also “continue to work to see that, in fact, what is right is done.”

Slayman said Wilkerson’s decision to suspend her campaign was “in large part, primarily for the community,” but that a “significant consideration” was the well-being of her family.

“The press attention to the accusation by the US Attorney caused a lot of consternation within the community,” said Slayman, “and there is also the consideration that she has gotten a lot of calls—mostly in support, but we’ve also gotten a few critical calls.”

Even before yesterday’s vote in the senate—and its seconding by Governor Patrick, the black community’s weekly newspaper, the Bay State Banner, had withdrawn its endorsement of Wilkerson’s re-election. But Slayman says the district would suffer if Wilkerson were to resign before a new senator takes office.

“One of the stories that’s beginning to be told even at the end of this campaign are the contributions she’s made to this community, representing people, working with mothers of children who’ve been murdered, getting people who’ve been sentenced to prison wrongly some compensation,” said Slayman. “The things she’s done took a real strong person to do, and the concern is that the person on the ballot now, if they have the will to do that, it would just take so much time to learn the system and to gain the influence to make the difference, and to really learn the constituency—she hasn’t lived in this community, hasn’t invested very much time here. And so the concern is that the community needs government more than most other senate districts in the state.”

Later this afternoon, Chang-Díaz appealed to Wilkerson supporters in the senate district for their partnership and help.

In a statement issued by her campaign, Chang-Díaz said, “I will go to the mat for the constituents of the Second Suffolk every day on the issues affecting our families the most—whether it's improving our public schools, stemming youth violence, tackling CORI reform, or fighting for affordable housing. We all know solutions won't happen overnight, but I can tell you I will work, from Day One, to build the coalitions both in- and outside the State House necessary to pass the legislation we need.”

The same afternoon, Governor Patrick announced formation of a new bipartisan task force on ethics reform. The task force would be headed by the governor’s chief legal counsel, Ben Clements, a former federal prosecutor who worked four years in the Public Corruption and Special Prosecutions Unit. The move follows developments in the Wilkerson case, but also investigations of lobbying by associates of House Speaker Sal DiMasi.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

FBI Pictures Tell Story: Senator for Sale

On the FBI’s undercover video, it wasn’t the senate district that was for sale, but the senator herself.

After losing a tight Democratic primary race September 16, Dianne Wilkerson accused contributors to challenger Sonia Chang Díaz of buying a seat that belonged to the people of the Second Suffolk District. But in the eye of an undercover camera, it was Wilkerson who was the accused, allegedly bought with a cash bribe stashed into her brassiere. For people accustomed to seeing the senator in the center of a large gathering, the shots looked off-angle and even truncated, as if the familiar public figure had been deconstructed.

The affidavit filed with the FBI’s criminal complaint against Wilkerson says she took $23,500 in cash bribes over a period of 18 months. The money was supposedly for help with securing a liquor license and development rights along Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury.

Helping to get the license could just as well have been part of a state senator’s job: pushing for one more step on the long road to realizing the Crosstown area’s potential for economic growth. In other words, a case of “Dianne delivers,” to use the name of the website for Wilkerson’s most recent campaign.

But, as the FBI alleges, the liquor license was arranged after Wilkerson had used her power as a senator to hold up measures affecting the Boston Licensing Board and the 2007 City Council election. And the FBI said Wilkerson tried to provide exclusive development rights on a piece of state-owned land that would normally be awarded after a process of public bidding and review. Without that process, it would be more difficult to know whether the rights were given to the best possible development deal for the state and the community.

According to the FBI, Wilkerson helped secure a partial victory for the applicant—the FBI’s “cooperating witness” —trying to open a dinner club at Crosstown Center. After denying the initial application, the Boston Licensing Board approved some revisions and gave permission to serve beer, wine and cordials. Before that happened, Wilkerson allegedly held up state legislation to give board members a pay raise. Was the board’s later decision influenced by the actions of Wilkerson? The FBI makes it seem this could have been the case. The board has no comment.

Wilkerson also allegedly put pressure on the City Council to help with the license approval, and to increase the supply of new licenses. One of these would potentially benefit the “cooperating witness,” since it would be much less expensive than the cost of getting a license the conventional way, by transfer from another location. And the FBI said five of the coveted licenses were to be set aside for Roxbury and controlled by Wilkerson.

To get cooperation from the City Council, the FBI says Wilkerson threatened to hold up a home rule measure that would have made it possible to skip the preliminary election in September of 2007 for city councilors at large. With only nine at-large candidates on the ballot, and fewer who were considered competitive, supporters justified the measure as a way to save money. The measure eventually passed, and in the final election, voter turnout was 13.59%, little more than half the figure for the two previous elections for city council alone.

If there had been no more than eight candidates to begin with, the preliminary election would have been skipped automatically. It’s hard to prove the lack of a preliminary made much difference in the outcome, though some have blamed it for a reducing public awareness and voter interest.

To go by the FBI account, while the City Council, Mayor Thomas Menino, and the Boston Licensing Board delivered for Wilkerson, there’s no accusation they did so with any knowledge of cash payments from a special interest. To the extent they helped with the license application and the overall supply of licenses, the affidavit doesn’t rule out the motives of promoting economic development and political cooperation.

Former City Councilor Lawrence DiCara says the councilors probably saw their dealings with Wilkerson as horse-trading.

“People do horse-trading,” he said. “That’s what politics is all about.”

If what gets traded benefits the district, or even special interests whose campaign contributions are made legally, it’s quite possible there’s no harm done. DiCara even recalled securing a license at a cost of $1.00 for a Sons of Italy lodge in Roslindale founded by his grandfather.

But if the quid pro quo also includes what the FBI says it captured on video and audio, the story changes.

“If I had done someone a good deed,” said DiCara, “and if I had done any horse-trading and found they were getting bags of money on the side, I would be embarrassed and offended.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, City Council President Maureen Feeney issued a statement that she had met earlier in the day with the FBI and the Boston Police Department, and that she was cooperating in the ongoing investigation.

“This is a disappointing day for all of us who are involved in public service,” she said. “The people are right to expect a higher standard.”

Another interpretation, by one of Wilkerson’s long-time supporters, Louis Elisa, is that there was a double standard: going after Wilkerson at a time when the FBI’s ability to go after criminal activity such as mortgage fraud had been diminished. And Elisa argues enforcement against corruption falls disproportionately on politicians of color.

While critics blame Wilkerson’s ethical problems on her character, Elisa says they are “a continuing pattern of trying to stop her from representing the community she lives in.”

As the affidavit notes, Wilkerson had supported the alcoholic beverages application before there was any question of a payoff. It was only after the initial application was denied that the “cooperating witness” offered the bribe, acting “at the direction of the FBI.” This happened, according to the affidavit, after the witness had told the FBI Wilkerson “routinely took cash payments from constituents and others having business before the Senate.”

If Wilkerson was baited, she still could have refused an illegal payoff. Even if the decision to lay the bait stems from a double standard or even from false accusations, any political weakness or financial strain could have made the temptation harder to resist. As Elisa put it, “It’s like offering bread to someone who’s hungry.”

Elisa was among the supporters at the meeting September 22, when Wilkerson announced she would try to hold on to her seat by running a sticker campaign in November. Two nights after the meeting, the FBI says Wilkerson spoke with an undercover informant about the campaign and legislation for development rights, and asked for $10,000.

Ten days later, according to the FBI, Wilkerson met the informant at Ali’s Roti Wraps and Take Out Restaurant on Tremont Street in Roxbury. The affidavit says, after telling him she filed the bill for the development rights, she took ninety $100 bills and twenty $50 bills and placed them in a manila folder. It was the last payment.

But yesterday’s events have changed the mind of at least one stalwart supporter, the most prominent newspaper in Boston’s black community, the Bay State Banner. In an editorial titled “End of an era,” the Banner weighs Wilkerson’s past accomplishments against the charges, the images in the media and the rest of the FBI’s evidence. “It is evident,” says the editorial, “that Wilkerson has breached the public trust.”

Monday, October 27, 2008

Question 1: Desperate Measure, Desperate Time

After three hours of testimony against the ballot referendum to abolish the state income tax, the last remaining City Councilors were faced with a Joe the Plummer. His real name was Mark O’Connor, and he introduced himself as a “concerned citizen” from Dorchester. He also said recently lost his job with a structural engineering firm—by his own account, a casualty of the credit crisis.

But, unlike so many community activists, labor leaders, and public officials at a public hearing October 21, O’Connor spoke in favor of abolishing the income tax by voting “Yes” on Question One.

“If it were to pass,” said O’Connor, “it would provide me some relief from the burden of taxation.”

By way of “desperate measures” for desperate times, O’Connor said the councilors opposing a “Yes” vote on Question One should come up with other ways to raise tax revenue and create jobs.

“Cut the red tape out,” he said. “This is ridiculous.” When pressed for a new revenue source, O’Conner suggested wind power.

Long before the hearing ended, 11 councilors had declared opposition to a “yes” vote on Question One. The next day the council would unanimously vote for a resolution calling for a “no” vote.

Before O’Connor had his turn, councilors heard a litany of possible outcomes from a “yes” vote: overcrowded classrooms, a cutback in home care for the elderly, higher fares and deteriorating service on the MBTA, and less access to English language classes for immigrants.

At the same hearing the Chief Financial Officer and Collector-Treasurer for the City of Boston, Lisa Signori, said the effect of a "yes" vote on the local budget would be a shortfall of $300 million, or 16% of total appropriations. She said that would require "significant cuts across the baord."

"We would not be in a position to not impact public safety and not impact public schools," she said.

According to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, the only way for the city to absorb the revenue loss without cutting schools, police, fire and public works (including related non-discretionary overhead such as health care and pensions)--and still avoid runing over budget--is to eliminate spending for all other departments and services.

"No matter how the City responds to Question 1," says Bureau President Samuel R. Tyler, "the cuts in local aid would fundamentally compromise the City’s ability to provide essential and quality of life services to the residents and businesses it serves."

The ballot question has also given rise to rival studies, with the largest net gains argued by the “yes” vote’s main supporters, the Committee for Small Government. The group says a “yes” will give each taxpayer an average of $3,700 a year, create thousands of jobs, while cutting state revenue by only 26.4%.

The Mass. Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) says the loss of income tax revenue would cut the state budget by about 40% and force even deeper cuts in some areas. As far as total state revenue, MTF says the Committee For Small Government pads the figure by double counting and including off-budget revenue such as state lottery proceeds (more than half of which goes back to prize winners).

While refusing to take a side on the ballot question, the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) tries to show what might happen if approval of Question One were to play out in a “best case scenario,” that is, being partially offset by increases in revenue from sources such as the property tax and the sales tax.

BHI’s strongest argument in favor of Question One is that eliminating the state income tax would produce a net gain of more than 80,000 jobs. The tax break supposedly would spur more people to enter the workforce, while employers would have more incentive to hire (lower taxes needing less offset from higher wages, and a larger pool of labor driving down cost).

By BHI’s estimate, the “relevant increase” in average annual household income from approval of Question One would be $1,500. How much of this would go to the people sitting on the sidelines of the job market? Even if the figure assumes increases in other taxes, it’s far from clear how many people would jump into the lower end of the job market from lower end of the idle labor pool. If the figure does assume new replacements for revenue, then many people from the lower end could still be disproportionately burdened by an expanded sales tax (including levies on food, electricity, and home heating) and property tax (whether as property owners or as renters).

The BHI factors in a number of cost-savings, starting with state spending on welfare (except for Medicaid) and housing and community development. It’s not clear how much welfare cutbacks would involve people who are employable, or a loss of potential added value (through training, or in connection with child care support) that could be costly in the long term. For example, more public subsidy might be needed for health insurance over the long term if a recipient is trapped longer in low-wage jobs.

Some of the other savings envisioned by BHI are iffy, to say the least. These include repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law (sure to meet with vigorous opposition from organized labor) and the Quinn Bill, which provides higher pay and pension benefits to police officers meeting requirements for higher education. In Boston, access to benefits under the Quinn Bill is guaranteed by contract. As popular as a cutback in those benefits might be for local taxpayers, the police union opposition would most likely be fierce, and any loss of benefits would almost certainly come at a price.

Also unclear under the BHI scenario is the chance of raising property taxes with an override of Proposition 2½. Though Boston’s tax rate (at least for residential property) is relatively low, it may be hard to frame an override as a necessary price for quality. In other communities, override campaigns are often directed at trying to protect quality in a public asset, such as a public school system with strong performance across-the-board. In Boston, where the quality is spotty, and where a smaller percentage of households have children in the public school system, an override campaign based on education might have more trouble.

The analysis for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce (COC) is confined to the elimination of the state income tax. Among the many resulting drawbacks cited by the COC is an increase in the cost of borrowing for state projects—including the backlog of road and bridge repairs. The COC says cuts resulting from Question One “could cripple public education at all levels.” And that, according to the COC, would hurt growth in economic sectors that depend on skilled workers: biotech, high tech, financial services, health, and education.

What no study looks at in any systematic way is the effect of a “yes” vote on Question One during a sharp economic downturn. In the best possible scenario, the rough patch would be of short duration. But, while it lasts, it’s hard to envision much in the way of relief from the downturn itself—whether by voting “yes” and cutting taxes, or by voting “no” and maintaining the state’s quality of life and workforce.

In their different ways, the BHI and COC show how the world might adapt—for better or worse—to a new landscape in taxes. What voters are not shown—by either reports or referendum campaigns—is how tax policy can adapt to a world that’s changing dramatically.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Subprime Virus: Blame CRA or Loose Market?

Before you blame the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) or the financial equivalent of affirmative action for the epidemic of subprime mortgage defaults—and the ensuing global economic crisis—consider the case of some condo units in three-deckers near Codman Square in Dorchester.

When Tariq Muhammad bought three units at 43 Whitfield Street in February of 2006, one of the lenders was New Century Mortgage Corp. At the time one of the country’s two largest providers of subprime mortgages, New Century had also given Muhammad a mortgage with 100% financing less than four months earlier for another three-decker unit, just around the corner on Wheatland Avenue.

All four of the loans to Muhammad—all from mortgage companies—resulted in foreclosure petitions. At Wheatland Avenue, Muhammad signed on for a mortgage with interest that would begin at 7.25% and then reset to as high as 14.25%. For the adjustable-rate loan at Whitfield Street, the reset could run as high as 16.575%.

Despite the higher risk associated with subprime mortgages, the higher interest would make it possible for the loan to pay a higher return when sold to financial markets. And, by the time the foreclosure petitions were filed, the loans were often being held by other companies. In the world of early 21st century finance, buyers of securitized loans were also able to ease their anxiety over possible loan defaults through new ways of hedging their investments—or by simply assuming the steep rise in property values would continue forever.

According to the Mass. Community & Banking Council, the transactions involving Muhammad were fairly typical for their time and place: in 2006, 68.7% of the high annual percentage (APR) loans in Suffolk County for purchase of owner-occupied properties were made by independent mortgage companies. They were licensed in the State of Massachusetts, but not subject to a federal mandate for serving a particular area or population.

For the same year, the council’s report on lending patterns shows a distribution of credit that corresponds very closely to regulatory directives for lending to “traditionally underserved” areas and populations. In Boston, of all home purchase loans going to black borrowers, 53.5% had high APR rates. For Latinos, the figure was 45%. For whites, it was 11.7%. Likewise, the share of high APR mortgages for all home purchase loans was 54.4% in Mattapan, 49% in Roxbury, and 41.2% in Dorchester. As it turned out, one person's pattern of community investment could become another's pattern of predatory lending.

So was the subprime lending pattern also caused by CRA or another push for affirmative lending? The author of the mortgage studies for the Community & Banking Council, James Campen, says no. Since most of the subprime mortgages were written by lenders beyond the reach of the CRA, Campen blames the resulting epidemic of defaults on a lack of regulation.

“Basically,” said Campen, “the banks weren’t the worst abusers in this by a long shot.”

The subprime mortgage disaster was not the first case of lending gone bad on a large scale. In the 1980’s, the lending crisis that resulted in a taxpayer bailout was caused by savings and loans, which were also exempt from CRA regulation.

So, if the mortgage companies were a second batch of lenders outside the reach of CRA making imprudent loans, then how account for the growth in subprime lending during the early years of the decade by banks such as Washington Mutual, JP Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo? According to BusinessWeek in April of 2005, the chief economist with the Mortgage Bankers Association, Doug Duncan, said one reason was that profit margins on subprime loans were “slightly better” than for prime loans. He also mentioned the mutually reinforced incentives for mortgage brokers to arrange loans with higher interest rates—and higher commissions for themselves.

Around the same time, Fannie Mae was significantly increasing support of subprime lending as a secondary source of capital—a practice it began in 1994. The deeper plunge into the subprime market followed regulatory and political pressure to meet more credit demand in low and moderate-income areas, along with the backlash around Fannie Mae’s overstated earnings in 2004.

But the New York Times says the change of direction at Fannie Mae was also due to market forces. As the Times explains, the growth of subprime lending and the growing volume of those loans purchased by investment banks (such as Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Goldman Sachs) during the housing boom threatened Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with a loss of market share. The result was more pressure on Fannie Mae—but from the likes of hedge fund managers and subprime lenders such as Countrywide Financial.

As for Muhammad’s lenders at 43 Whitfield Street, New Century filed for bankruptcy in April of 2007. Nation One Mortgage Company stopped writing mortgages in May of 2007. And Fieldstone Mortgage Company filed for bankruptcy protection in November of 2007.

In September, 2006, Muhammad bought and did his own conversion of a three-decker in Dorchester, on Fuller Street. In 2007, when the condo market was already slipping, he sold two units in the house for $355,000 apiece, with mortgages by Homecomings Financial and Wells Fargo. Foreclosure petitions have been filed on both units. The third unit was sold in February of this year for an even higher price--$365,000—to a buyer who purchased another three-decker unit—from the same developer who sold the units on Whitfield Street to Muhammad.

All three of Muhammad’s units at 43 Whitfield Street made it all the way to foreclosure, and two were sold this year. Both buyers were from out of state, and one unit received a mortgage from JP Morgan Chase—for use as a second home. In both cases, the buyer of the units at foreclosure sales, Lord Allah, turned them over the same day for a nominal amount to a company headed by another investor with a string of foreclosures. And that buyer sold them to the current owners within two months.

The subprime debacle has already gained distinction for resulting in the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression. But the pattern of speculation and bad loans on overvalued properties has been seen before, mainly on loans by thrifts in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

In the interim of little more than two years between Tariq Muhammad and Lord Allah, many large companies have gone to ruin or vanished into mergers, and many homeowners and tenants have suffered enormously. Buyers still acquire multiple units in three-decker condos, but at lower prices and with higher down payments. More often these days, the mortgages stipulate use of the property as a second home—but even some of these loans have already begun to fail. Buyers and lenders may come and go but, as those who remember the 1990’s might conclude, the pattern at street level has remained very much the same—at least until the end of the early 21st century.

Changing Schools in a Time of Crisis

Starting her second year as Boston School Superintendent, Carol R. Johnson has to make headway on improvements while looking for ways to save money—all in the midst of a global economic crisis.

“It’s always easy to add and difficult to subtract,” she said last Wednesday night, as she presented her plan, “Pathways to Excellence,” at a meeting of the Boston School Committee.

On the add side are options that are popular with parents and with champions of reform: new and expanded K-8 schools, three new innovative “pilot” schools, a new two-way bilingual program, more enrichment and science programs, and more programs for dropout prevention. There would be single gender programs for grades 6-12, a new school for immigrants needing help with English, and a new transitional school for students with severe attendance problems. There would also be expansion through grade 12 for two schools in Brighton and Dorchester serving lower grades with a more inclusive approach to special education.

On the subtract side of Johnson’s recommendations are the closing of five elementary schools and some winnowing of the experiment with subdivided high schools. With changes in student assignments to increase walk-to enrollment, and possibly with some shorter commutes for students with learning disabilities, officials say the plan would trim costs for transportation over the next five years by $4.7 million. They say the overall savings would be $13.8 million.

When presenting the plan, Johnson called the closings “a means to an end.”

“We reduce the number of seats,” she said, “to redirect resources to quality programs.”

“This is all driven around academic excellence, equity, and access,” said School Committee President Elizabeth Reilinger.

“Some of this will be phased in over time,” she added. “It’s not all at one time.”

The closings would follow a period of declining enrollment—according to the School Dept., by 7% over the past five years. Among the reasons given for the decline are increasing competition from charter schools, and the overall decrease in the city’s school-age population. Officials say the percentage of Boston children enrolled in the school system has been holding steady, but figures also show the number of Boston students enrolled in charter schools is surpassed by the number on the waiting list.

The chair of the Education Committee on the Boston City Council, Chuck Turner, says the superintendent is “between a rock and a hard place.”

“What she has to do, on the one hand, is increase the attractiveness of the system as a whole to parents,” said Turner, while working within a budget “at a time when resources are declining.”

And Turner says the question is less about whether some schools should be closed than which ones.

“You have to persuade the public that, while closing anything is difficult,” he said, “there really is a need there.”

The senior project director at Mass. Advocates for Children, John Mudd, praised the plan as “extraordinary and impressive.” But he says there are still questions about how a change in the use of buildings will affect teaching practices and school management. And he says more has to be known about how changes in transportation affect access to sought-after programs in limited supply, such as advanced work classes.

“How are these organizational changes going to be turned into educational changes for teachers and for children?” he asked.

The president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel Tyler, calls the superintendent’s plan “a good foundation over time.” But he says there have to be even more savings from changes to student assignments.

“I finally think that, in the end, the School Committee or the superintendent will be in the situation where they were last year—where they need to cut more,” said Tyler.

In the previous fiscal year, school officials had to make cuts, but still needed more money, including a one-time rescue of $10 million from the city’s reserves.

According to Tyler, the school system still faces rising costs for personnel, along with a possible reduction in money from the state, due to the economic slowdown. He says the School Dept. also has to develop a new central kitchen—or find a contractor—for a meals program that currently costs the city $6-8 million dollars a year.

“This isn’t the end of going back and looking at how to make cuts in operation,” said Tyler.

Nor was the plan the end of demands from parents. While two parents at the School Committee meeting thanked Johnson for enlarging K-8 options in West Roxbury, others called for more advanced work classes in middle schools and a two-way bilingual program closer to the Haitian-American community in Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park.

But, with a growing financial crisis around the world, Mudd says the effect on students will go beyond the school budget to the direct economic stress on families—whether in homelessness or abuse.

“This is going to hit people pretty hard,” said Mudd. “And usually the people who are most vulnerable will be hit the hardest.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Twists in a Close Race for State Senate

Along with asking for a recount, the two Democratic candidates in a close race for state senate in the Second Suffolk District are bracing for the possibility of yet another rematch.

At a meeting Tuesday night with supporters at the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Grove Hall, Senator Dianne Wilkerson said, if the recount fails to give her the nomination, she is prepared to run as a Democratic sticker candidate in the final election November 4.

“There will be more people at the polls on November fourth than at any time in our nation’s history,” said Wilkerson. “And I’m afraid what happened here is a harbinger of what could happen to Barack Obama around the country.”

In the Democratic primary last week, Wilkerson finished behind second-time challenger Sonia Chang-Díaz by 228 votes. Even on election night, Wilkerson and her supporters said she missed out on votes in precincts she carried because some polling places had been relocated. Within the district, there were changes in polling places for ten precincts.

Wilkerson campaign spokesperson Jeff Ross said Monday there were also complaints about ballot scanners that failed to work and voter requests for provisional ballots that were turned down.

“The campaign” said Ross, “wanted to respond to voting irregularities and voter disenfranchisement and address the issues raised by the community.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the Boston Election Dept. announced it would do a recount in four wards covering parts of the district in Roxbury, the South End, and Jamaica Plain. Recount petitions had been filed by both candidates.

The candidates also asked for a recount after the close race two years ago, when Wilkerson failed to get on the primary ballot and ran a sticker campaign. On election night in 2006, Wilkerson was ahead by only 141 votes. Both candidates picked up additional votes in the recount, which increased Wilkerson’s margin to 692 votes.

In this year’s primary election, Wilkerson came up short, despite support from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick, along with endorsements from labor unions and the Latino political group, Oíste.

When she spoke to supporters on election night, Wilkerson also blamed the outcome on the “inordinate amount of money” contributed to the Chang-Díaz campaign by fundraiser Barbara Lee. Wilkerson said she was afraid it meant the district “was for sale.”

“I think the issue, the idea that one woman should have so much influence in what happens in this district,” she said, “it bothers me to no end.”

Since the election of 1974, the Second Suffolk District has been all but officially maintained for a black office-holder. After almost 16 years in office, and even in her post-election speech, Wilkerson was still trying to reconcile the district’s historic black identity with its current multi-racial population—encompassing Roxbury and part of Dorchester, along with the Back Bay, the South End, Bay Village, Chinatown, the Fenway, Mission Hill, and Jamaica Plain.

But the population represented by Wilkerson has also been changed by the redistricting after the last federal census in 2000. As a result of those changes, the district lost 16 predominantly black precincts in Dorchester and Mattapan. Added to the newly-drawn district were Ward 8 (Lower Roxbury and the South End), along with precincts in the Back Bay, South End, and Jamaica Plain. In 20 of the new precincts, whites were in the majority or at least were the largest racial group.

At the meeting Tuesday night in Grove Hall, Wilkerson supporters said her defeat would be a setback for black and Latino representation throughout the state.

The City Councilor for District 7 (Roxbury and Dorchester), Chuck Turner, said there had to be a seat in the senate that would be for someone “rooted in the politics of the black and Latin community.”

“We are in a battle,” said Reverend Miniard Culpepper, Pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist church in Roxbury. “If you think Dianne lost just because somebody thought it was a good idea to run, you’re wrong.”

Right after Wilkerson’s announcement, supporter Robert Marshall started calling for volunteers.

“This is bigger than Senator Wilkerson,” he said. “It’s about us stepping up to the plate.”

In a statement issued the same night, the Chang-Díaz campaign said it was confident she would come out ahead in the recount.

“In the primary election, we told voters that this year they didn't have to choose between leaders who would do good work on the issues they cared about and leaders who would always be accountable to those they represent – and the voters said yes,” said Chang-Díaz. “On November 4th, I believe the voters will say yes again.”

* * * * *

Sticker campaigns usually gather less support than a place on the ballot, but Marshall notes Wilkerson has already won as a sticker candidate. Though Wilkerson could very well benefit more than Chang-Díaz from the higher turnout in the November, two of her most prominent supporters—Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino—would have to choose between the candidate they backed in the primary and, barring a reversal in the recount, the nominee of the Democratic Party.

When she spoke Tuesday night, Wilkerson said if she did go ahead with a sticker campaign, she would oppose the party nominee as a Democrat.

“This ain’t Lieberman,” she said, referring to the US Senator from Connecticut who left the party and later endorsed the Republican nominee for President, John McCain.

“I’m not an Independent,” said Wilkerson. “I’m a Democrat.”

Some of Wilkerson’s supporters also expressed dismay over a racial divide in the primary vote. But one supporter acknowledged that many of the same voters in consistently progressive areas who went for Chang-Díaz had voted two years ago for Deval Patrick as Governor and would probably support Barack Obama for President.

In the longer term, the racial identity of the district could also shift with the population and new changes in boundaries. Given its current population, Boston’s adjoining First Suffolk state senate district also has the potential for electing candidates of color. Though the district still contains South Boston, it also includes Dorchester and part of Mattapan. According to the 2000 census, whites accounted for one-third of the district’s population, while blacks were at more than 40%--a number which has most likely increased.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vote for Change in Close Senate Race

When Dianne Wilkerson arrived at The Henhouse Wings and Waffles, her supporters had already heard she lost. Hugging them one after another, she made her way toward the side of the restaurant where a victorious US Senator John Kerry beamed overhead on a television screen.

As the crowd drew closer in a gathering quiet, someone shouted, “Turn off the television.”

It was time to speak.

But, before that happened, the state senator reached down to take off her black high-heels. Wearing a bright red dress-matching the color of her campaign signs, she then stepped up to begin. She was standing on a plastic milk crate that was covered with a piece of cardboard.

Rather than congratulate the apparent winner, Sonia Chang-Díaz, or even acknowledge that a close race had been lost, Wilkerson talked about what went wrong, including the votes she might have failed to get because polling places had been relocated. Within the district, polling places had been changed for ten precincts, most of them carried by Wilkerson.

“I think we lost two hundred at the David A. Ellis School,” she said, “people in wheelchairs that we just couldn’t transport.”

According to unofficial returns from Tuesday night, Wilkerson lost by 228 votes, despite support from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick, along with endorsements from labor unions and the Latino political group, Oíste.

Also blamed for the defeat was the “inordinate amount of money” contributed to the Chang-Díaz campaign by fundraiser Barbara Lee. Wilkerson said she was afraid it meant the district “was for sale.”

“I think the issue, the idea that one woman should have so much influence in what happens in this district,” she said, “it bothers me to no end.”

Since the election of 1974, the Second Suffolk District had been all but officially maintained for a black office-holder. After almost 16 years in office, and even in her post-election speech, Wilkerson was still trying to reconcile the district’s black identity with its multi-racial population—encompassing Roxbury and part of Dorchester, along with the Back Bay, the South End, Bay Village, Chinatown, the Fenway, Mission Hill, and Jamaica Plain. On the one hand, Wilkerson took issue with a voter who criticized her for representing only Roxbury. On the other hand, there were the figures showing it was possible to become senator in the district without carrying the black vote.

“I think what this proves is that you could be a state senator without representing a good core of this community,” said Wilkerson, “and that makes me sick.”

* * * * *

After her victory party in Jamaica Plain at the Alchemist Restaurant, Sonia Chang-Díaz was mingling with supporters and occasionally stepping outside for a call on her cell phone. What used to be the more congested and smoky confines of Triple D’s and Buddy Hanrahan’s had been transformed. There were exposed brick walls and a high black ceiling with exposed rafters. Given all the space and hard surface overlaid with music, it was hard to hear talk even at close range, but supporters with anything to say were in a mood to cut through noise. And Chang-Díaz credited her victory to the mood of the voters.

“Voters have been telling us over and over again that they are frustrated and they want new leadership,” she said.

In her campaigning, Chang-Díaz tried to reinforce that feeling by drawing attention to the Wilkerson’s settlement over campaign finance violations six weeks earlier. Though Wilkerson called the violations “errors of accounting,” some went farther—accurately or not-- in their conclusions about how the money was used.

And, when asked two weeks earlier at a forum In Jamaica Plain what she would do to uphold the laws on campaign finance, Wilkerson responded with seven syllables: “Try my best to follow them.”

Chang-Díaz then said she would uphold the laws, not just try.

After the victory on Tuesday, Chang-Diaz supporters took pride in the campaign’s ability to identify and turn out voters, with little time wasted on trying to create buzz.

Chang-Díaz acknowledged role of contributions—from Barbara Lee, but also the small amounts from other supporters, along with volunteer work, some of it by grassroots activists at her celebration.

“I’m very happy to have Barbara’s support. She has been an advocate to progressive women leaders that we have been very fortunate to have in this state,” said Chang-Diaz. “None of the money is from lobbyists.”

* * * * *

The figures from Tuesday’s vote show Wilkerson winning the predominantly black precincts in Roxbury and part of Dorchester between Grove Hall and the Franklin Field area. She also carried Chinatown (Ward 3, Precinct 8) and precincts with subsidized housing developments such as Bromley-Heath, Mission Park, Alice Heyward, and developments along the Southwest Corridor. Chang-Díaz carried precincts in the Back Bay, the South End and Bay Village, part of the Mission Hill area, and nearly every precinct in Jamaica Plain. That included the precinct with the highest number of voters, in the Jamaica Hills area.

The outcome invites the conclusion that turnout was higher in precincts carried by Chang-Díaz , but it might be more correct to say that Wilkerson could have used more help with voter registration. As for the percentage of registered voters who turned out for the election, the total for the Second Suffolk race was 17.3%. In the precincts carried by Chang-Díaz , the turnout was 16.5%. In the precincts carried by Wilkerson, it was 16.7%.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Two Reasons to Vote in Boston Senate Race

Ever since the election of Bill Owens in 1974, the state senator representing the Second Suffolk District has been an African American. Thirty-four years later, the district’s incumbent, Dianne Wilkerson, remains the one and only African-American in the Massachusetts Senate. And, if that puts a spotlight on racial identity, Wilkerson has rechanneled the glare over the past 16 years to put racial divides in sharper relief—whether in housing discrimination, predatory lending, the achievement gap in public schools, health disparities, or traffic stops by police.

During a candidate forum September 4 in Jamaica Plain, at Boston English High School, Wilkerson even mentioned her own conflict with racial identity—at least with some African-American church leaders—resulting from her support for same-sex marriage rights. Her rationale was grounded in the civil rights movement, but the cheers were from what Wilkerson called a “Boston” audience—neither exclusively black, Latino, white, LGBTQ, or even progressive. Though the senate district includes most of Boston’s African-American population—in Roxbury and parts of Dorchester—it also includes areas dominated by whites, Latinos and Asians—including the Back Bay, Fenway, South End, Chinatown, and Jamaica Plain.

Two years ago, most of the areas outside the black community were carried in a tightly contested primary by Wilkerson’s challenger, Sonia Chang-Díaz. Mounting her second challenge in the Democratic primary on September 16, Chang-Díaz takes progressive positions. But this race between two progressives does have differences.

Take public education. Chang-Díaz talks in race-neutral terms about trying to get new revenue for reducing class sizes, or higher minimum wages so parents would have more time to be involved in their children’s education. At the forum, Wilkerson showed little enthusiasm for higher spending, but called for recruiting a “culturally diverse teaching population.”

“You go to our Department of Education,” said Wilkerson, “you don’t see blacks and Latinos at a higher level to be involved in the process of figuring out what to do with the black and Latino students.”

Wilkerson also drew attention to racial disparities in students placed in special education.

“I think we also have to deal with the fact that we have a special ed program that in fact has become the de facto population of black and Latino males, where we put the kids that other people can’t handle, and that my definition of ‘special’ is that very few people have it,” said Wilkerson. “If 75% of the black and Latino males are in special ed, there’s nothing special about it.”

If the comment sounded like the politics of resentment--some people versus other people—it also wasn’t very far from concerns of leaders in educational policy. Wilkerson went on to explain her attempt to set up a legislative commission on the status of black males, and she suggested a possible need for schools or classes where boys and girls are taught separately.

Before starting her second campaign, Chang-Díaz worked as Director of Outreach and Development at the Mass. Budget & Policy Center. She also previously worked as a teacher in public schools. In comments at the forum, she focused on the difficulty of teaching in Boston high schools, with an average class size, by her estimate, of 31 students.

“You cannot deliver the kind of individualized attention that every student needs with that kind of class size,” she said.

“I think, at $2200 per student, it’s hard to make the case that a lot of it is about money,” Wilkerson responded.

“Anybody who says we’re going to fix this with more money,” she said, “is dreaming.

Wilkerson also argued against the current amount of spending on incarceration as a way to reduce violence. She called for revisiting the state’s mandatory sentencing for certain offenses in school zones—which cover most of the city. And she disagreed with support by Chang-Díaz for limiting legal gun purchases to one per month.

Wilkerson’s reluctance in recent years to embrace across-the-board spending increases for improving schools and public transportation might be construed as a sign of her lack of clout. The problem with clout could also reflect the entrenched divide between the interests of Boston and at least the suburbs, if not quite all the rest of the state. But, with a trail of media reports over the years about her troubles with taxes, condo fees, nomination signatures, and most recently with reporting and record-keeping in campaign finances, there are some grounds for concluding the lack of clout is at least partially due to Wilkerson’s individual shortcomings.

At the forum, Chang-Díaz stopped short of making that argument explicitly, though she has faulted Wilkerson with a failure to be open with her constituents about which interests support her campaign, and how their money is being used. And that, according to Chang-Díaz, diminishes clout for all progressives.

“It harms the progressive agenda when we reinforce people’s cynicism by asking them to choose between good votes on the issues and good ethics and accountability,” said Chang-Díaz. “It pushes people away from voting and away from participation in our political system.”

In other words, Chang-Díaz is trying to convince voters that Wilkerson’s troubles are costing them clout and what clout is supposed to deliver. That’s precisely what Wilkerson is trying to refute in her campaign website (the heading says: “Dianne Delivers ‘08”). And in her campaigning, Wilkerson has talked up everything about filing bills to help victims of predatory lending, to having a role in Governor Deval Patrick’s approval of money for a new skating rink in Jamaica Plain and infrastructure supporting new development in Jackson Square.

But, when it comes to projects in the district, the two candidates also have their disagreements. One is about Columbus Center, the stalled megaproject over the Mass. Turnpike on the border of the South End and Back Bay. Chang-Díaz opposes giving the project additional state subsidy.

The candidates also disagree about another stalled project, the Level 4 biolab that Boston University has been trying to build in the South End, near Boston Medical Center. Chang-Díaz is opposed to the project, while Wilkerson has been joining with other local office-holders trying to increase regulatory hurdles for the lab—but also keeping a door open to community benefits, such as training and jobs.

“There are many states in the nation that we are competing with for the biotech industry, for the biotech jobs,” said Chang-Díaz, “but there’s not a single other Level 4 biotech—bioresearch—lab that is sited in a densely-populated area.”

Despite describing herself as an ally of the lab’s opponents, including State Representative Gloria Fox, Wilkerson also hailed it as the “leading edge” of biotech research.

“The reality is, if we’re smart as a community, we want to make sure that all of our sides are covered,” said Wilkerson. “My position is if we lose on this, I want to have a conversation about what that means in our community. If we win, there’s no lab, no harm found, and we go on our merry way.”

When Chang-Díaz made her first challenge two years ago, Wilkerson had failed to gather enough valid signatures to appear on ballot in the primary. This year, there was an abundance of signatures, and the overall increase in the number votes by people of color in Boston over the past decade belies the notion that they’re tuning out candidates.

Throughout the entire forum Chang-Díaz made practically no mention of her Latina and Asian background. It could be that approach will attract votes by diminishing identity barriers (as seemed to be the case in her strong showing in the diverse and progressive precincts in Jamaica Plain). But, before voters can transcend identity, they have to be mobilized. And, if neither candidate for senate in the Second Suffolk District can do that entirely on her own merits, then the two of them can certainly energize voters through one thing most legislative races in Massachusetts lack—solid competition.

Note: a number of polling locations in Boston have been changed. See list of polling place changes and an up-to-date list of polling places for the September 16 primary has been issued by the Boston Election Dept.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Three-decker Units: Any Owners at Home?

The following article was published August 21 in the Dorchester Reporter.

On a single dead-end street on Meetinghouse Hill, two extremes of Dorchester's troubled multi-family housing market can be found side by side. The difference between these two three-deckers on Navillus Terrace - creatively named for a man named Sullivan - reflects market price, but also conjures up a fortune-telling vision for the neighborhood.

With multi-family buildings accounting for a large share of properties heading toward foreclosure, and more foreclosure filings in Dorchester than any place in Massachusetts except Worcester and Springfield, the conflicting extremes are cause for concern, even if mixed with hope for a market recovery.

Late last September, after mortgage defaults led to a rash of boarded-up three-deckers on Hendry Street and elsewhere, causing property prices to plummet in Dorchester particularly, all the units in a three-decker at 10 Navillus - just three short blocks away from Hendry - sold for no less than $345,000 apiece.

The buyers seem to be habitual high-price mortgage borrowers. The mortgage on one unit was for a second home, and the lenders for the other units waived the requirement for owner-occupancy. Two of the owners have also bought units at other locations in Dorchester.

Next door, at 12 Navillus, there's a very different story. After changing hands three times in little more than two years, the entire three-decker was sold at auction last month for $260,000. The buyer was an investor and developer who also bought five other properties in Dorchester sold by auction since last November.

What neither vision at Navillus involves is owner-occupancy on even one floor, the thing most neighborhood activists say is most vital to improving any neighborhood.

The developer whose firm did the conversion at 10 Navillus, Michael "Dave" Scott, says, "You're going to see more investors buy this housing. It's going to be an investor's market."

Real estate analyst John Anderson has spotted both trends: unit sales at prices that still make him predict more foreclosures, and buildings at bargain prices often going to investor/developers who survived the slumps of the past.

"Everybody's having a field day, except the people who live in Dorchester," said Anderson. "We're still concentrating equity and wealth in the hands of the people who have it."

Pricey Condos in a Depressed Market

On paper, it would appear the equity in multi-family conversions is going to people like Scott, who shows up in several conversions as manager of the development company Southeast Properties. But Scott says he also pays back equity through renovations, and by providing jobs.

"I have a lot of expenses that you don't see," he said. "The rehab costs are really killing me."

Scott has been linked to conversions of more than one hundred units, whether in sales by himself, his development entities, or associates. Most of the units are in Dorchester and Roxbury, with many sales going to buyers who buy multiple units. Many of the buyers are listed as being from other states or locales outside of Boston, and the number of foreclosure filings against these buyers - whether at locations involving Scott or other developers - continues to climb.

Three weeks ago, in response to a Reporter article detailing at least eight foreclosures among his converted units, Scott said the figure was "impressive," given the overall market.

"If I don't have foreclosures, I think I'm doing something wrong," he said.

A review of additional and more recent transactions on properties where Scott has been involved shows roughly two dozen petitions to foreclose. That figure includes units where Scott represented a buyer with power of attorney, or where units in a conversion that involved him were sold again, usually within no more than a matter of months.

Scott says he sells units to "legitimate buyers," even though, he allows, they "sometimes make bad choices." He notes that condo units purchased for investment take time to pay off.

"I think it's a good investment," he says, "because after taxes, you're making money and you're building up equity over time."

But, for a good deal of his unit buyers, time tends to run out.

"It's a scary market," says Scott. "Everybody's pointing fingers. It's a high-risk area."

Scott points his own finger at appraisers, underwriters, and some buyers. He also points at 70 Sawyer Ave., a three-decker where a developer named Edward Mazurkiewicz sold three units for $439,900 apiece to a buyer from Hyde Park, Cristobal Toledano. The sales took place in May and June of last year. By May 1 of this year, foreclosure petitions had been filed in all three units.

He also points to Draper Street, where several converted units have drawn foreclosure petitions. Three of them were at 85 Draper St., a house purchased by Giles Moss-Hayes, who was represented through power of attorney by Patrick F. Lee. At 80 Draper St. across the street, Lee sold two units that would later draw foreclosure petitions. Each of them sold in November 2006 for $374,900.

Lee also represented Moss-Hayes in the conversion of 110 Norton St., where all three units sold in May and June of 2006 for $350,000 apiece. Foreclosure petitions would later be filed on all three units.

Over the past two years, there have been 17 foreclosure filings in buildings where Lee figured in a condo conversion. In his most recent transaction, Lee was the buyer for three units in a house on Theodore Street in the Franklin Field area where foreclosures are taking a serious bite out of housing prices. He bought the units in January of this year, at $315,000 apiece, from, wait for it… Giles Moss-Hayes.

A review of more than 200 conversions over the last two years in Boston - mostly in Dorchester and Roxbury - shows more than 100 foreclosure filings against owners who bought more than one unit, sometimes in the same building. Names that appear as unit buyers with mortgage trouble sometimes turn up later as investors converting more units, or as people with power of attorney to represent other buyers.

One of the stand-ins is Jerrold Fowler, a buyer from Norfolk, Virginia, who purchased a unit from Scott on Avondale Street in Lower Mills in November 2006. A foreclosure petition on the unit was filed last month. In the interim, Fowler was given power of attorney to represent buyers in seven other unit sales involving Scott.

Another unit buyer recycled into a developer was Tariq Muhammad. He lost three units to foreclosure in a three-decker at 43 Whitfield St.

After two of the units there were sold at auction to another developer with his own trail of mortgage troubles, they were resold this year to buyers from out of state.

In the developer role, Muhammad converted a three-decker at 310 Fuller St., where he sold two units last year for $355,000 apiece, and one this year for $365,000. A foreclosure petition on one of the units sold last year was filed in July. Meanwhile short sales and bank-owned condos, albeit without existing condo associations - have gone for less than half of that price on Fuller.

The New Market: Owners or Investors

In a local multi-family market where Anderson sees an "incestuous mess," some see opportunities, at least in the long term, and probably without more condos.

One investor and developer, who is mainly avoiding conversions, says there is a market for three-deckers and "plenty of value" in Dorchester. But he also says media reports have frightened off buyers, and even scared some owners into walking away from their property.

"There's some good buys out there," he says, "and, instead of waiting for the market to bottom out, they should be out there buying."

Some predictions call for the Dorchester market to begin recovering in one or two years. The executive director of the Mass. Affordable Housing Alliance, Thomas Callahan says there has recently been a "fair amount of activity" in its "soft-second" mortgage program to make purchases more affordable for first-time home-buyers.

"We are definitely seeing people taking advantage of the market drop," he said.

But Callahan says even the current lower prices on three-deckers are no match for the affordability of the early 1990s, when these houses were within range for buyers with an annual income of $30,000.

"What we say in our classes," Callahan notes, "is that three-deckers are not for everyone. You've got to really want to be a landlord."

Potential buyers interested in multi-family housing still have to compete with the market for conversions. A survey of recent conversions in Dorchester - on Mt. Vernon Street, Rill Street, Adams Street, Everton Street, Torrey Street and Topliff Street- shows several buyers who have also bought units at other locations. The prices are lower than figures for the condo conversions of two and three years ago - for sale of the entire building and for units, most of which have been selling for less than $300,000 apiece.

While the city works toward bringing owner-occupancy back to vacant houses on Hendry, at least one non-profit community development group is exploring ways to break the foreclosure cycle at other properties. Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation Executive director Gail Lattimore said it's difficult to get cooperation from most of the companies in charge of foreclosure sales.

And putting the properties back into control of owner-occupants or "good-guy" investors, she said, will require more intervention from the private and public sector.

"I'm a little concerned," she said, "that if there are lots of investors out there, I don't think it bodes well for Codman Square and the rest of Dorchester being stable as we go forward."

Editors note: Patrick F. Lee shares part of his name with a principal in the development firm Trinity Financial, but other than that, there is no connection between the two men.

All information about transactions referred to in the story was drawn from the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Three-decker Condos: Rebound or Relapse?

The following post appears as an article in the Dorchester Reporter.

To judge by sale prices for three-decker condominiums in Dorchester, the housing slump is over—at least at a few locations. The prices do have connections to names that repeatedly turn up in foreclosure filings, and they stick out like tree stumps in a flood of declining values, but that hasn’t stopped the flow of credit—whether from small lenders or high-profile companies such as JP Morgan Chase.

One example of a unit with a rising price is a top-floor condominium in a three-decker at 43 Whitfield St, a few blocks west of Codman Square. After selling for $330,000 in February, 2006, the unit would be taken by foreclosure. In April of this year, Fannie Mae let it go for $65,000. Then, after less than two months and a certain amount of improvement, there was a new buyer who put up $339,000, with a 20% down payment.

The last transaction in June also stands out as a turnaround for the seller. This was a company called SRC Investments, whose president and treasurer, Sirewl Cox, figured in nine other transactions that have drawn foreclosure filings since last September. It was a director of the company, Lord Allah, who bought Unit 3 at 43 Whitfield St from Fannie Mae in April. Later the same month, he bought Unit 1, for $45,000. Each time, he turned over the property the very same day to SRC Investments for $100.

Once SRC Investments took title, it received mortgages for both units from a lender based in Jamaica Plain, Capital Trust LLC. Though Capital Trust was lending to a company that had no record of previous borrowing in Suffolk County, the mortgage notes—for loans totaling $72,000--were signed by Cox.

Attempts to reach Cox at phone numbers in Easton, Mass., and a broker’s office listed in Dorchester were unsuccessful. Capital Trust has yet to respond to messages by email and phone asking how it could give mortgages to someone with a paper trail showing several recent bad loans.

On its website, Capital Trust says its approach to lending provides “speed and flexibility that traditional banking environments cannot provide.” The website also says Capital Trust can “provide creative financing options for opportunistic real estate transactions” and “quickly fund loans that make sense.”

But some observers of the real estate market in Dorchester say what doesn’t make sense is the Unit 3 sale price of $339,000. One observer said, even with “top of the line” renovations, the market value would only run as high as $300,000.

Another observer familiar with the market said, “Based on what the current market conditions are, I won’t imagine it would be three-anything.”

When the unit sold June 3, the buyer on the deed was a Christine Hoyte of San Francisco, California. JP Morgan Chase gave her a mortgage of $271,000, on condition that she use the condo as a second home. To complete the transaction, she also gave power of attorney to a stand-in named Larneshia Bryant, whose name appears on the mortgage note.

But other documents show Bryant also has connections to Cox. The two of them were shown as joint tenants of a condo in another three-decker in Dorchester, on Roxton St, where a lender filed to foreclose on the mortgage in February of this year. The unit is listed as being owned by Cox and Larneshia Bryant Alexander.

Over a period of three months earlier this year, there were foreclosure filings against Bryant on seven other properties. Two of the properties were bought from Cox in 2006, less than two months after he acquired them. Two others, also turned around in less than two months, were bought from another seller whose mortgage was signed by Cox with power of attorney.

Bryant has one other tie to Cox, through a business entity called Strategy Investments. The company was organized three years ago, with Cox as president and director, and Bryant as treasurer and secretary. The company bought two properties—one in Dorchester and the other in Roxbury—on which lenders would later file to foreclose.

Strategy Investments is listed on the directory of an office building at 40 Court Street for Suite 700. That’s also the official address for SRC Investments.

The notary who stamped the mortgage note for Unit 3 at 43 Whitefield St, Rebecca Konsevick, was asked whether Bryant was supposed to represent the interest of the buyer.

“That was my understanding,” said Konsevick.

When told about Bryant’s business ties to Cox, the notary was asked which side Bryant was on when she signed the mortgage for Hoyte.

Said Konsevick, “I have no idea.”

* * * * * *

The previous owner who lost all three units to foreclosure at 43 Whitfield St was Tariq Muhammad. He bought these units and another in a three-decker on Wheatland Ave from Iris and Kelvin Sanders. The other two units at Wheatland Ave were bought by Cox, and both also went down the road to foreclosure. Over the past three years, lenders have filed petitions to foreclose on a total of 12 units sold by Iris or Kelvin Sanders—all of them in Dorchester.

Muhammad also bought a three-decker for conversion at 310 Fuller St, with the help of a $120,000 loan from Kelvin Sanders. The house shows signs of repairs. After selling two units last year, each with 5% down payments for $355,000, Muhammad sold a third unit in February of this year for $365,000, with a down payment of 10%.

Just down the street, a realtor at Dorchester Associates, David Cahill, has been working on the sale of a whole three-decker which has been listed on the market for $369,021. When asked about the slightly lower price for a single floor sold in February--$365,000—Cahill called the figure “ridiculous.”

“When I see those prices pop up in the public record, I just shake my head,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

By way of comparison, Cahill noted the difficulty in selling condos at the new development right next to Ashmont Station, The Carruth. Based on that, Cahill says, it would be harder to sell condos in most other parts of Dorchester, especially if they’re farther away from rapid transit and commercial centers. The condos at 310 Fuller Street are roughly half way between Ashmont Station and the commuter rail stop at Morton Village.

“It’s not an area where people are going to go shopping for condominiums,” said Cahill.

But that didn’t stop Marcus Emile.

He was the buyer at 310 Fuller St who paid $365,000 and signed for a loan of $328,500. The loan was from Dreamhouse Mortgage Corporation. On its website the company says, “Our team of experienced mortgage experts is committed to your success and will go above and beyond traditional means to insure your satisfaction.”

The unit at Fuller St wasn’t the first for Emile. Four weeks earlier, he bought another property, in the St. Mark’s area, a three-decker unit at 15 Santuit Street for $340,000—from Kelvin Sanders. The down payment on the unit was 10% and the loan was from Countrywide Bank.

As with previous three-decker acquisitions by Kelvin and Iris Sanders, there was also a single buyer who took multiple units. In this case, the buyer was John Castodio. One deed shows him as being from Stonington, Connecticut. One of his mortgages for 15 Santuit St requires him to use the unit as a second home. On the other mortgage, the owner-occupancy requirement has been waived.

Cahill says the transactions at high prices make some owners more reluctant to sell at the normal market rate. And if more of the high-priced units go into foreclosure, he warns, there will be more converted three-deckers without active condo owners associations—which might limit the unit’s next sale to cash-only.

“No bank in their right mind’s going to finance it,” he said.

* * * * * *

Less than two years ago, some three-decker condo units in Dorchester, often with freshly made improvements, were selling for as much as $435,000. At least ninety units were sold in conversions—mostly in Dorchester—involving Michael D. Scott (and other variants of the name) and his associates or their business entities. So far, there have been at least eight foreclosure filings on the properties. Some of the units have recently been listed for sale, at prices as low as $174,000, and one unit—on Lafield St—sold June 30 for $190,000. Less than two years earlier, Scott sold the unit to a buyer from Maryland for $375,000.

Some properties bounce from one foreclosure to another. This happened at 24 Gayland St, Dorchester, a conversion in which Scott figured. After the first buyer lost unit 2 to foreclosure, Scott bought the unit and sold it again at a higher price less than two weeks later, in February of last year. The new buyer also has mortgage trouble. A foreclosure petition was filed against her last month.

There have also been repeat foreclosures among Cox and his associates. After he lost a property he originally bought on Claybourne St with Jacquelyn Pittman, Cox bought a property that Pittman lost to foreclosure on Reservation Road in Hyde Park. That purchase led to another foreclosure petition, against Cox.

Pittman also lost a property to foreclosure at 2 Rock Ave in Dorchester. It was purchased in January of last year by Larneshia Bryant. A foreclosure petition was filed against Bryant in March of this year.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Dorchester Day: Passage in Pageantry

The sun was shining on Dorchester Avenue, but the supersized papier mâché face of Prospero was tossing in the wind and tugging on a piece of wood attached to Shanaen Anderson. Preparing to ride in the Dorchester Day Parade in a flat-bed semi-trailer, she was among the DotArt students who would be mounting puppets to represent characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

In the DotArt creation that rolled down the avenue on Sunday afternoon, Shakespeare’s castaways and heirs to Dorchester’s seaborne founders were delivering an ecological message that hearkened back to the first refuge for endangered species, Noah’s ark. Cruising the waters painted along the side of the trailer was an endangered shark missing a fin. Trailing behind were carts bearing an elephant, a giraffe, and DotArt kids needing to get off their feet.

One of the DotArt parents, Ceronne Daly, was ready for the four-mile journey by her 7 year-old daughter, Alexis. She packed four bottles of water, along with carrots and grapes.

Walking in front of another flatbed, for DotOUT, Rosie and Anna had a pail for their Yorkshire terrier companion, Che. DotOUT members on the trailer had an easier time, playing the role of sun-bathers or even getting some shade from the umbrella with rainbow colors. True, they were another cast upon a shore, but the locations posted on signs were clearly in Dorchester: Tenean Beach, Savin Hill Beach, and Pope John Paul II Park.

Following DotOUT was First Baptist Church, just as Union soldiers from the Civil War marched in front of the Dorchester Lacrosse league. Vietnamese war veterans also marched in uniform, while other veterans showed their opposition to war in Iraq. And, as they passed through Fields Corner, one spectator yelled to the anti-war group, “Send ‘em home. Send ‘em all home.”

Elsewhere in the rolling chain were the double Dutch girls with SWIRLS (“Sisters Working for Real Life Solutions”), Estrellas Tropicales, and the St. Ann’s CYO girls’ basketball champs. Vietnamese formations won applause, while rotating shifts of lion dancers ran up to giggling bystanders. When Caribbean carnival dancers approached with their glitter and outspread peacock feathers, the less encumbered bystanders started moving to the music.

As always, there were elected officials and candidates—from the mayor and the governor, to several City Councilors, state legislators, and a Governor’s Councilor. Former City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil had passed away since the last parade, while the Vietnamese presence he once deplored has become a fixture in the parade and a multi-million dollar investment along the avenue. A year ago, O’Neil made his last appearance, going down the avenue in a 1977 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. But, insubstantial or not, the pageant had a place for him this year, too: a black 2007 Lincoln Town Car, with O’Neil’s name in green and orange, and one more sign: “The Legend Lives On.”

Also: view parade photo essay.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Civic Summit: Getting from Small to Large

The civic mind begins with small things.

Rough patches left in the pavement in Roslindale by a utility company. The way a precinct in Beacon Hill with low voter turnout in city elections keeps getting redistricted. Or the dissatisfaction by a Grove Hall resident with quality-of-life services: “Things just don’t get done,” she says.

When more than 450 people gathered Saturday for the “civic summit” at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, most of them were from either neighborhood groups or non-profits. Both kinds of groups usually cover a limited territory. For the neighborhood groups, it often means land use or public safety. For non-profits, it’s the economic development project, the social service, or advocacy for a particular need.

But the summit co-chaired by City Council President Maureen Feeney was supposed to help groups move beyond their usual boundaries. Even as participants arrived, they were given stacks of business cards so they could follow up on new contacts from around the city.

Feeney reminded them of a low point in Boston’s civic engagement, the 14% turnout of registered voters in the 2007 election for City Council. But Mayor Thomas Menino and the event’s other co-chair, the executive director of the Mass. Convention Center Authority, Jim Rooney, brought up some high points of civic engagement, from the War to Independence to the opposition that stopped the extension of Route I-95 through Boston.

The morning workshops were closer to the small things: zoning, organization building and resources, political action, and getting out a message through the media. But the people taking on these topics at the workshops were from all around Boston. And the topics themselves often require organizations to think beyond their own territory and natural allies—whether in a dispute over land use or in being portrayed by the media.

At lunchtime, there was a shift toward a larger perspective, in a talk by Dr. Thomas Sander, Executive Director of Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sander compared the recent gains and losses in civic engagement to the beginning of the 20th century, when new groups took shape in response to immigration and the massive population shift from the countryside to the city.

A century later, Sander explained, there have also been dramatic changes. He acknowledged research indicating that racial diversity can make people close ranks more closely among their own kind, while being less trustful of others. But he vouched for the advantages of social capital, even on a small scale. One example: getting to know neighbors is more effective at reducing crime than increasing coverage by police.

“We didn’t think the answer is that we all ought to live in gated communities,” said Sander.

Likewise, during the town meeting after lunch, small things connected to something larger. Participants from Dorchester noted that desirable streets could be only stone’s throw from a “hot spot” for gun violence, just as a student attending a prestigious exam school can ride the same bus route on which another student was fatally shot last year.

When asked to identify the “most important issues” facing Boston, more than three hundred participants put education and youth development in first place, followed by economic development and public safety. They also identified education and youth development as the issue that would benefit the most from civic engagement, followed by public safety and the environment.

Other results from the town meeting showed there was a gap between the turnout at the summit and Boston’s population. Almost three-quarters of those at the summit were white, and two-thirds were at least 45 years old. They listed concerns about youth participation, a disconnect between citizens and government, even feelings of “us vs. them” in community groups.

But, for all the concerns and the demographic mismatch, participants tried to figure out their next move. For the year 2020, their goal was a city with a 100% high school graduation rate and a school system on par with those in the suburbs. For the year ahead, the list began with after-school tutoring, a campaign against litter and graffiti, and more summer jobs.

They were only lists, but the small things had gotten larger.