Friday, December 17, 2010

Boston Residential Tax Bills Increase

The rate’s going up for Boston’s property taxes. For residential property, the increase is from $11.88 per thousand dollars of value to $12.79. For commercial property, the increase is from $29.38 to $31.04.

The average tax bill for residential property will increase by 7.5%, from the previous year’s $2,935, to $3,155. As in past years, there will be an exemption for owner-occupants of residential property. This year’s exemption will be $1,594.85.

The administration of Mayor Menino say it’s raising total property tax revenue by the maximum amount allowed by Proposition 2½. Also affecting the rate is a slight decrease in the city’s overall property values.

The tax bills coming out will be calculated on property values as of January 1, 2010. The date precedes changes in market values caused by the tax break for first-time home-buyers, and by the fall-off in sales when the break expired.

In recent years, residential values in some parts of Boston have held firm or even started going back up. But, in other parts of the city, values are still falling. As in past years, city officials note the average residential tax bill in Boston is lower than the same bills in many other communities. And they say the bill for FY 2011 is 30% below the average residential bill for all of Massachusetts in FY 2010.

After School Closings, Still More Hurdles

With 5,600 vacant seats in the Boston Public Schools, there must be room for saving money on buildings and, possibly, transportation. If the money can be used for longer school days and incentives for more effective teaching (which would have their price in a new teachers' contract), then there’s all the more reason to consolidate.

That’s the case for closings made by most of Boston’s public officials and business leaders, and even by advocates for students. The argument has been made for at least three years.

But, instead of consolidating in phases and spreading out disruption, the School Committee voted this week to close nine buildings and merge another eight schools. That’s the largest single downsizing in the Boston Public Schools since the early 1980’s, a time of economic recession after newly approved limits on the city’s property tax and a drop in enrollment with the start of desegregation.

Over the weeks leading up to the vote on this year’s round of closings, school officials have emphasized the big picture. Repeatedly they brought up the expected savings on facilities—$10 million—and the coming year’s expected budget faces a shortfall—as much as $63 million. And they kept saying that money saved could at least make surviving schools with empty seats more attractive.

“Many of those empty seats are in high-quality schools,” School Committee Chair Rev. Gregory Groover told BNN News, “so if we can relocate some of those children to those high-quality schools, you’re talking about hundreds of more students, if not thousands of more students who will have access to better schools.”

One reason officials backed off from earlier attempts to consolidate schools and transportation was that the remaining options increased educational inequality in a way that was hard to miss on a map. Under one plan to increase the number of school zones from three to five, many families in the poorest neighborhoods would have faced a disproportionately high probability of being stuck with an under-performing school.

So, instead of just leaving access to sub-standard schools more randomized, the goal is to bring more schools up to standard, even with more options among charter schools.

But, as in the 1980’s, many people most directly affected by closings view them as a new uncertainty, and possibly a step backward. At a series of hearings before the consolidation was approved this week, parents and students spoke about what they valued in the schools being closed, and they combined personal narrative with statistics.

At a hearing in November, before more schools were added to the consolidation plan, Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman turned his back on the School Committee and told a hall mostly filled with parents and students, “The schools chosen are not under-performing schools, and not in any way dysfunctional schools.”

This week, the day before the vote, in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Thomas Menino weighed in and put the emphasis on the big picture: “Will we as a city have the courage to stop doing things that limit students’ achievement, so we can grow the strategies that accelerate it?”

The day after the vote, the mayor pointed out that the closings are only the start of a longer process. Along with providing space in other buildings, school officials are faced with the challenges of redesigning the assignment process, improving performance at more locations, and finding the right programs and teachers for English language learners and students with learning disabilities.

At a hearing last month, the assistant superintendent for English language learners, Dr. Eileen de los Reyes, said the aim would be to “move the strength” of the special programs. “We are hoping to move the faculty with the students,” she said.

But, as the West Roxbury Patch reports, plans for English language learners affected by the closing of the Agassiz Elementary School in Jamaica Plain are being questioned by parents of students at one destination school in West Roxbury, the Patrick Lyndon.

Another school being closed, the Emerson in Roxbury, has the only structured immersion class for Cape Verdean students. And one opponent warned that splitting up students in the language program would also interfere with daily routines of going to school in groups. “You’re breaking up not only the programs,” she said, “but the families.”

Some of the mergers in the plan involve high schools sharing the same buildings in South Boston and West Roxbury. Though officials say mergers will add strength overall, the chief academic officer, Irvin Scott, denied the change would mean the expansion of one school and the total disappearance of the other.

“The goal,” said Scott, “is to take what’s great in both schools and replicate it.”

With the new combinations yet to be defined, some students from high schools being merged in West Roxbury left class this week to protest in downtown Boston. They talked about being faced with changes in curriculum and possible conflicts with a different mix of classmates.

The mergers of subdivided high schools also signal disillusionment with what once seemed a promising concept—that smaller, more tight-knit schools, would improve student performance. Though some of the innovative schools, such as Excel High School in South Boston—have been hailed as improvements over the standard district high schools, the assistant superintendent for research, assessment and evaluation, Kamalkant Chavda, said that, overall, they showed “no significant” academic improvement.

If nothing else is changed, a smaller number of schools would create more demand for student transportation. That means savings will have to come from other measures. One possibility is to have some middle school students take MBTA buses with discount passes. Another would be to let fewer students within a walk zone have the option of a bus ride.

Demand for busing will also be affected by any redrawing of zones, and the resulting changes in the number of options for school assignments. If there were enough improvement at enough schools, it would be possible to increase the number of zones without increasing inequality of options. And Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar said last month the five zones proposed a couple of years ago are “not enough.” In the best possible outcome, there could even be more families satisfied with a school’s performance and a convenient location in their neighborhood—qualities valued by many of the parents who spoke out against school closings.

But, getting to that outcome will involve difficulties, including some posed by the expansion of charter schools. Along with contributing to a shift of state money away from district public schools, charters have an advantage in transportation. Currently their students are entitled to busing anywhere in the city, and this is paid for by the Boston School Dept. Even with the current assignment plan, busing is only provided within a zone—for students in the BPS and Catholic schools.

Though school officials say the consolidation will stop short of exceeding student-to-teacher ratios in each classroom, some fear there will be more classes where the influx will hurt performance. And, after the vote, Stutman even questioned the determination of Boston officials to stem the exodus of potential new students to charter schools.

By speaking to the Chamber of Commerce instead of parents at the School committee, Mayor Menino chose a setting that was almost certainly less confrontational. And he used the occasion to bring up one other challenge to educational improvement—the rising cost of health care for teachers and other city employees.

As the president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel Tyler, points out, the budget for the Boston School Dept., minus the amount for insurance coverage, is getting smaller. Menino and the Bureau favor a change of state law that would let the city impose a less costly form of coverage without having to get separate agreements from all collective bargaining units—something allowed to the state since 1955.

It stands to reason that give-backs for unions would go over well with business executives, but that has so far been little match for the reluctance of the state legislature and Governor Patrick, or even the Boston City Council, to dramatically increase leverage over health plans for local communities.

Given the media exposure for Menino’s speech, it could be said he was trying to rally a broader public. This could include many people with less generous coverage, and maybe fewer options for educating their children. And, judging by The Boston Globe’s account of new population trends, the audience could even include actual or potential “New Bostonians” whose pursuit of good schools prompts them to move out or avoid the city altogether.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pariahs, Pantheons, and Chuck Turner

It was a little after the City Council vote to expel Chuck Turner when I got off the trolley at Government Center. As I was on the way up the stairs, I saw a descending face that looked familiar yet puzzling.

Not only that, but this figure on the escalator seemed to recognize me. I still don't know who this was, but it was only a couple of seconds before misplaced resemblance became a reminder of a tarnished political figure in Boston's past. That's why, as I headed across the wet brick plaza toward a funereal mass of people outside City Hall, I thought of the late state representative from Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain, Kevin Fitzgerald.

Unlike Chuck Turner, Fitzgerald was never convicted of a crime. But Fitzgerald was entangled in a civil action over money he came by after helping an elderly woman described as being mentally impaired and having bags of cash containing thousands of dollars. Though Fitzgerald was a beneficiary in the woman's will, there was no proof beyond all reasonable doubt of stealing money that, sooner or later, should have gone to someone else. And Fitzgerald denied that it was a case of private compensation for public service. Though the case was widely reported in the Boston media, Fitzgerald kept being re-elected. For the rest of his political career, he would also be saddled with a familiar nickname, "Money Fitz."

As he made his defense before yesterday's vote, Chuck Turner compared himself to a more famous figure who went from humble origins in Roxbury to Jamaica Plain--Boston's "Rascal King," James Michael Curley. Along with rising as high as mayor, governor and congressman, Curley would be convicted twice, and on the second occasion for a federal crime. Not only that, but he continued serving as mayor of Boston after his release from prison.

As a Roxbury politician who spent some time helping local constituents--including ex-offenders--Curley certainly has some things in common with Turner, who has lived in Roxbury for decades but was born in Ohio. To be sure, Curley had his attractive traits and admirable accomplishments. Unlike Turner, the son of immigrants moved to the Jamaicaway and lived in a mansion with servants (plus legendary lines of supplicants at his door).

The author of The Rascal King, Jack Beatty, offers plenty of detail about the dark side of Curley, as off-and-on demagogue and possible crook. When asked if Curley might have done any garnishing along the way, the author of a more recent book on Curley, former State Senate President William Bulger, strongly disagreed.

Two years before he died, Curley moved from the mansion to a smaller house in Jamaica Plain. He was diminished materially and, more importantly, by the death of all but one of his children. The combination of accomplishments, misdeeds, and misfortunes made him seem larger than life.

When Curley died in 1958, there was what has been called "the largest funeral in the history of the City of Boston," maybe surpassing even the turnout at Columbia Point last year after the death of Ted Kennedy. Likewise, Fitzgerald was remembered before and after his death as a strong champion of human services. He would eventually be honored by the naming of a scenic park looking out on the office towers of downtown Boston and the spires of Mission Church.

Further on in Boston's political afterlife, Chuck Turner will be remembered as a leader of campaigns for jobs, reform around criminal background checks, and for putting a spotlight on the persistent achievement gap in the city's schools. If he was remembered in yesterday's vote for taking a wad of cash at his office in Dudley Square (as the federal jury saw it), he might also be remembered for spending time there to help individuals trying to get their lives back on track.

When Turner invoked Curley yesterday in the City Council's Iannella Chamber, some found the comparison fatuous or offensive. If it was a plea for being allowed to stay in office, it was certainly wishful. If less than fully persuasive, it did open the door to more comparisons with elected and non-elected officials who, despite serious lapses, managed to keep their positions.

But the view of Curley in Boston is like an image in a cracked mirror, or a pair of images that don't quite match. So it is with the two pieces of sculpture near City Hall. One shows Curley standing proud--Curley the beloved, the admirable, and perhaps shrewdly mythological. The other shows an old man on a bench, a fellow mortal, not so much enthroned as deposed.

Yes, Curley the ex-offender was allowed to serve the remainder of his term as mayor. He ran again more than once but was never again to be elected. While he was a strong candidate for immortality, the voters of his last decade confirmed he had outlived his usefulness as a public official.

By voting to expel Chuck Turner, his colleagues might seem to have been slighting the positive elements that people might remember in years ahead. If Turner were to have continued serving, the sting leading to his conviction might have gotten more life as a public issue--with voters in Roxbury's District 7 left to see his behavior as principled defiance or colossal stupidity.

But, instead, the
expulsion left the district's voters to concentrate on something else. That takes the spotlight off the afterlife of other officials who go on to work for interests with business before the city or the state. And it dims the glare on the more roundabout--though usually quite legal--ways of rewarding people in the public realm for benefits in the private realm. What Turner's exit also makes less apparent is any resemblance to the lingering presence of Curley on the bench.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dorchester Swing Voters Find Way to Surprise

We chose to do a report on the November election in Boston by going to Florian Hall in Dorchester. The main reason was that Ward 16, Precinct 12 had the makings of a swing vote.

In the last final election for governor, in 2006, the precinct gave Deval Patrick and Tim Murray more than 48% of the vote, with a tally of 397. That was in a four-way race, with the Republican team, Kerry Healey and Reed Hillman, getting almost 41% (336 votes). The remaining 11% went mostly to Christy Mihos. But, in January of 2010, when the special election was held to fill the seat left vacant by the death of US Senator Ted Kennedy, the precinct was carried by Scott Brown.

Given the drift of public opinion surveys around the country, it seemed that a precinct carried by Patrick four years ago could tilt in a different direction this time around. Even though Patrick was clearly favored in most of Dorchester, the mix of voters at Florian Hall was different even from that even in most other predominantly white precincts—with more firefighters and police, and with many elderly, especially from the nearby Keystone Apartments.

Though one voter in this year’s mix expressed sympathy for the Tea Party, the results had Patrick on top, if with a smaller margin over the rest of the field. The governor received almost 44% of the vote, and his tally was 369—28 votes less than four years ago. Incidentally, almost 44% was exactly the precinct's share of the vote in January for Martha Coakley, when Scott Brown received 55% in what was much more a two-way race.

As it turned out, the biggest difference from four years ago was the drop in support for the Republican ticket. Charlie Baker and Richard Tisei got a little more than 33% of the vote. As the managing editor of the Dorchester Reporter, Bill Forry, noted, the reason was the level of support for independent candidate Tim Cahill, at more than 22%—well above his showing statewide.

If the showing for Patrick in the precinct was less than triumphal, there’s a case for saying he did better than other Democrats around the country, especially if he’s judged on votes by the elderly. According to Nonprofit VOTE, there was a dramatic shift in the tilt among elderly voters, compared with November of 2008. Two years ago, Democrats had the edge with these voters—by one percent. This year, the advantage was to the Republicans, by 21 percent.

One explanation for the shift among elderly voters—aside from general discontent over the economy—could be the portrayal of national health care reform as coming at the expense of Medicare. If Democrats and AARP tried to make reform seem less threatening to the elderly, there was certainly a different spin from Republicans in campaign advertising (even back in January, when Brown was on his way to victory).

There’s still the caveat that comparing this year’s vote to that of 2006, let alone 2008, is tricky. In the presidential election year of 2012, the common assumption is that the turnout will include many more young voters, which should help Democrats. Less clear is whether the elderly vote of 2012 will be more like the national tilt in 2008 or the national tilt this month, not to mention the presumably greater tilt in favor of a Republican at Florian Hall in January of 2010.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Boston Vote: Higher Numbers, Lower Turnout

Before the polls closed, it looked as if support for Deval Patrick in cities throughout Massachusetts might be outweighed by a surge of votes from the suburbs. When the counting was over, the Patrick-Murray ticket was re-elected by a tighter margin than in 2006, yet with a higher number of votes from Boston. By comparison with 2006, Boston's turnout was down considerably--from 56.22% to 43.99 percent. But only going by those percentages would be to overlook the dramatic change in the city's number of registered voters, an increase which includes many voters signed up for the election of 2008. So the other comparison is to say the number of people voting in Boston yesterday was still up from the figure for November, 2006 by 6765 or 4.33 percent.

By sections of Boston, Ward 20 (West Roxbury and part of Roslindale) had the highest turnout, at 59.50 percent--which was down from November of 2006, when the figure was 66.36 percent. This year, following primary contests for two open seats in the state legislature and a special election for district city councilor, the number of registered voters in Ward 20 was up by 13.97%, but the number of votes cast, compared with four years earlier, was up by 2.19 percent. Along with a strong showing in Boston for state senator by West Roxbury State Representative Mike Rush (76.62% of the vote) over West Roxbury Republican rival Brad Williams, there was a small change in the break-down for Patrick. Four years ago, he lost one precinct in Ward 20. Yesterday, he carried all 20 precincts.

Citywide, Patrick carried all but 8 of 254 precincts, losing precincts
only in South Boston. He also lost most of these precincts four years ago, when Kerry Healey won 10 precincts in the city. There was a larger jump in enrollment in South Boston (up from November, 2006 by 39.34%), partially fueled by competition in September for the seat being vacated by State Representative Brian Wallace. Though the turnout percentage was down, the number of votes cast was higher, by 14.87 percent. As in past years, the final election results for state representative proved to be lopsided, with the Democratic nominee, Nick Collins, getting 73.13% of the vote over Republican rival Patrick Brennan.

As it turned out, the strongest showing by a Republican running for a local seat in Boston was in the Back Bay and Beacon Hill. That's where Brad Marston received 30.38% of the vote against Democratic incumbent Marty Walz.

Patrick wrapped up his campaigning Monday night with a rally in Roxbury's Dudley Square. The main question, even at the rally, was about getting out the vote. Compared with November of 2006, the figures from predominantly black precincts in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park show the vote was up modestly--by 3.35%, though the percentage of enrolled voters at the polls was down--from 54.59% to 42.09 percent.

By comparison with four years ago, the Patrick-Murray share of the Boston vote was slightly smaller, down from 72.86% to 70.28 percent. The number of votes they picked up this time in Boston was slightly higher, by less than one percent.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

From Vargas Llosa to Dorchester Avenue

I finally got around to reading an English translation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversación en La Catedral a few years ago. The thick paperback had been stacked on a shelf at three different locations for as many decades. But I was hooked right away by the crapulous opening. And it’s even better in the original:

Desde la puerta de “La Crónica” Santiago mira la avenida Tacna, sin amor: automóviles, edificios desiguales y descoloridos, esqueletos de avisos luminosos flotando en la neblina, el mediodía gris. ¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?

A newspaper reporter—let’s say a reporter washed out before he’s forty, or grey at noon and descolorido, if you will—looks out on the dreary streetscape of Peru’s capital city and wonders (in much more polite terms) what went wrong.

A Peruvian native who writes for the Jamaica Plain Gazette, Andy Zagastizábal, describes this fictional reporter as “a desperate person who feels he has lost everything.” When we had talked about this passage a few years ago, Andy quoted the last sentence in the original and asked me if I knew what the verb meant in English. I came fairly close. Even in translation, this was a memorable passage. I certainly remembered it last Thursday when I learned that Vargas Llosa had just won the Nobel Prize for literature. And, after I shared this news with Andy, he called this passage “one of the best beginnings of a novel.”

I’ve never seen Lima, but a college classmate who grew up there once described it as a rather depressing place with a lot of gray weather (he much preferred the Peruvian jungle). I’ve always imagined a much less pleasant San Francisco, with a swelling periphery of shanty towns.

The title of the book actually refers to the name of a seedy bar. This is where the journalist meets with his rich and influential father’s chauffeur, who fills him in on some dark family secrets, overlapping with the underside of Peru’s military dictatorship in the 1950’s. True, there’s something in common here with the post-traumatic effects of other dictatorships, whether you read them in works by Junot Díaz or Viktor Pelevin (who once described Russia of the early 1990’s as “a banana republic that imports bananas from Finland”). But, when I read the beginning of Conversación en La Catedral, I think of a place in Boston.

To be precise, I think of an unremarkable bar on Dorchester Avenue, Vaughan’s Tavern. This was in the mid-1970’s, and Vaughan’s was just another brick-faced bunker with small rectangular windows, where there surely would have been the kind of skeletal avisos luminosos tracing the name of some beer. As for decor, I remember few details except for a portrait of Bobby Kennedy hung on a wall, just above a couple of rifles. The bar was right across from Edison Green, which at the time was only a vacant lot where there used to be substandard housing.

As it turned out, I went to Vaughan’s on the first story I covered in Dorchester. This wasn’t even a story as much as a way of meeting people and gathering dots that could later be connected as stories. Some of those stories would concern trouble over liquor licenses, so it was a good idea to sit on the meeting, which took place in a storefront next to the bar. Also making an introductory visit was the newest member of the Boston Licensing Board. He was meeting with leaders of Dorchester neighborhood groups, among them a no-nonsense leader from Savin Hill, Kit Clark. After much else on the agenda, Clark finally let him speak and told him to keep it brief.

There was one more reporter in the room, a columnist for The Boston Globe, Alan Lupo. He thought it would be a good idea to finish connecting dots for his piece about the man from the Licensing Board at the bar next door. Lupo graciously invited me to tag along, and, after that, I mainly listened and watched, if not all that perceptively.

I do remember that the man from the Licensing Board stood out from his surroundings. He wore a suit and he spoke with a certain deferential confidence about listening to concerns of people in the neighborhoods and being responsive. After all, he had been a concerned neighborhood leader himself in another part of Boston.

The most memorable thing happened as the three of us were on the way out. One of the customers, who’d had a bit to drink, for some reason went up to the man from the Licensing Board like a voter courting a politician (yes, it sometimes works this way, too). Taking the man in the suit by the hand, the customer told him, “I’d want my son to grow up some day to be just like you.”

To this day, I’ve never really been sure whether this was an outburst of admiration or sarcasm. In any event, time would later prove it to be misdirected. The man from the Licensing Board would, among other misfortunes, go on to have a tarnished career.

But I would keep reading Alan Lupo’s columns and books for many more years, until he passed away in 2008 (or, in the words on his voicemail, “shrugged off his mortal coil”). And, by sometime in the 1980’s, the vacant lot across the street would become an elderly housing complex named after Kit Clark.

First impressions do linger, and maybe no less when they mislead. As benchmarks, they help show how the dots that seem so factual, even if logged in a notebook or pixelated in a photo, can also be fictitious, or at least a kind of mythology. If some of these dots are deceptions that need to be exposed, others are symbols that instruct and inspire by keeping alive the memory of a role model.

The other side of this is how fiction draws on fact. In the case of Vargas Llosa that especially means his earlier career as a journalist. After learning Thursday that he won the Nobel Prize, he told the Spanish paper, El País: "El periodismo me ha dado la obligación de confirmar, de verificar, me ha enseñado lo importante que es la perseverancia. Si no hubiera tenido esa disciplina no hubiera sido un escritor; sigo verificando, sigo corrigiendo, obsesivamente. Es un gozo para mí escribir, sin duda, pero si detrás no hubiera este esfuerzo no hubiera escrito las historias que ahora forman parte de mi vida. Es una servidumbre y un gozo, un gran gozo".

To hazard a translation: "Journalism has given me the obligation to confirm, to verify, has taught me the importance of perseverance. If I hadn't had this discipline, I wouldn't have been a writer; I keep verifying, keep correcting, obsessively. Writing is a joy for me, without a doubt, but if there hadn't been this effort, I wouldn't have written the stories that now form part of my life. It is a servitude and a joy--a great joy."

What Vargas Llosa speaks of here might be what Dante called “la mente che non erra”—the mind that gets it right. That’s not always available at all times, so there’s a need to fall back on something for guidance, or at least a standard. Dante, washed out and middle-aged, meets Vergil in a dark wood and starts making his way out by making his way down—with the plod of reason. Myself, I think of another “low dishonest decade” and a conversation in a certain dive on Dorchester Avenue.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

From Blitz Conversion to Scratch and Dent

This article appears in the Dorchester Reporter.

There was a time when Peter Power knew some of the people who lived in the six-family houses across Parkman Street. But that changed after mid-September of 2007, when the three buildings were converted into condos, all within less than four weeks.

“The next thing I knew,” said Power, “nobody was living in them at all.”

By mid-October, a developer had bought all three buildings in separate transactions for a total of $2.2 million dollars. The units then sold, on paper, for a total of almost $4.9 million. All but one of them were sold within three days the after sale of their building. Lenders put up mortgages totaling $3.8 million.

Even more unusual was the assortment of condo owners—from the manager of the Bank of America Branch in Fields Corner, to buyers from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and even as far away as Atco, New Jersey and Norfolk, Virginia. On paper, some of them were owner-occupants. Others supposedly bought units as their second homes, or for investment—at a time when the condo market in much of Dorchester, and many other places, was in decline. Yet, judging from the difference between sales prices and mortgage amounts, the down payments for the units ran as high as $75,000.

Less than three years later, the developer, Michael David Scott, is under federal indictment for mortgage fraud, along with the bank manager, an attorney who worked on many of the transactions, and two other people accused of being recruiters for straw buyers. Scott and two other defendants pleaded not guilty last week. In the indictments, they are accused of paying the straws to buy units at falsely inflated prices, and making false statements to lenders about the buyers’ assets and down payments. Also pleading not guilty is the now former bank manager, Arthur Samuels, who stands accused of producing false documents and recruiting a straw buyer.

Before the first indictments were handed up late August, foreclosure petitions had been filed for 8 units in the buildings on Parkman Street. But, even without, in most cases, going all the way into foreclosure, the units that Scott sold for as much as $299,900 apiece would later be scooped up for as little as $55,000. Some were turned over for a nominal fee, with the buyer assuming the mortgage. In the interim, the buildings were painted on the outside and filled with new occupants.

But Power says the buildings still have problems. He mentions rodents attracted by trash containers that some residents don’t put out on the curb for collection. Plus, during the summer, there was a shooting in one of the buildings that, according to police, resulted in four arrests.

“It just brings the value of your house down,” says Power.

A lifelong resident of Dorchester, Power describes the buildings as a “flophous
e” with “revolving tenants.” Saying he and his wife are thinking moving, he adds, “I actually do like Dorchester, but I don’t like what’s coming down the street right now. It’s not safe."

Federal authorities list fraudulent transactions by Scott and his collaborators on 48 units, all but six of them at locations in Dorchester—including the ones on Parkman Street. Most of the units have since been turned over to new owners. In at least one case, in a three-decker on Centre Street, there was a period when the doors and windows for one unit covered with plywood.

But there were also problems at another building listed in the indictment, a three-decker at 672 Adams Street.

“The lawn was disgusting. There was broken glass everywhere,” said a neighbor who described the building as “an eyesore.”

“We own our condo,” she said, “and we were afraid it would bring the price of ours down.”

Records show units in 672 Adams Street were all sold within a few days after it was bought under the name of Astoria Realty Trust. One unit was sold to Arthur Samuels. The others were sold to buyers from Virginia and Pennsylvania. Last year, foreclosure petitions were filed on two of the units. By February, all three units—which had sold less than two years earlier for a total of $870,000—were sold in separate transactions to a buyer from Quincy for a total of $140,900.

To buy all the properties listed in the federal indictment, Scott and his associates paid almost $6.2 million. On paper, the separate units sold—mostly within a few weeks—for a total of $13.9 million, while the mortgages put up by lenders came to almost $11.8 million. The highest loan totals were from Salem Five—more than $3.3 million—and Gateway Funding Diversified Mortgage Services—$4.4 million. And sources at both lenders say a loan officer who played a role in some of the transactions for Gateway later went to work for Salem Five.

Records show Scott and his associates, overall, sold more than one hundred units in Boston, mostly from condo conversions in Dorchester and Roxbury. Foreclosure proceedings were started on at least 80 of the units, while even some of the other units would be turned over in distressed sales. One lender—Gateway—wrote mortgages totaling more than $13 million for 44 of the units. Out of these, there would be foreclosure petitions filed on 35 units.

Many of the buyers purchased multiple units at multiple locations, and the same pattern can be found in multifamily transactions by other sellers. A partial review of records in Boston over the past few years shows foreclosure proceedings on more than 240 units against more than 100 owners of anywhere from 2 to 8 units. Some of those owners also turned over other units in distressed sales, without the filing of foreclosure petitions.

Researchers disagree about the effects of foreclosures on surrounding property, and they caution that poor conditions and price declines can also make distressed sales more likely.

The Rappaport Institute estimates a discount of 28% on sales of foreclosed (REO) properties, with the steepest discounts in areas where lenders have the most fear of property being damaged by vandalism.

According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, small multifamily properties make up less than one-quarter of the housing stock in Massachusetts, but they account for 33 percent of the post-foreclosure sales. Researchers say the REO property discounts were steepest in areas with lower income levels, a higher percentage of minority residents, and a sharper decline in overall prices.

In multifamily REO properties that were converted into condos, potential buyers face even more obstacles. With staggered foreclosures on individual units, observers say financing is more difficult to arrange in buildings without functioning condo associations.

“You’re going to be left with someone who’s going to be willing to buy for cash,” said one appraiser based in Dorchester, “and, when you’ve got the cash buyer, you’re going to be left with considerably less for it.”

Monthly reports by The Warren Group show that the sharp declines in the median prices for Dorchester condos have since been reversed, even if prices are still below the levels at the height of the housing bubble. In July and August of this year, after the expiration of federal tax credits, there was a fall-off in condo sales, though the median price was still getting higher.

According to a report by In Realty, housing prices strongly rebounded in the second quarter of this year in all areas of Dorchester. In the area where the market had been the weakest—between Blue Hill Avenue and Washington street—prices were going up, but volume was down. According to the report, one reason was the decrease in foreclosures.

Helping to bring down the number of foreclosures are the efforts to keep buildings occupied, sometimes through loan modifications or sales to occupants. The non-profit Boston Community Capital has arranged this kind of turnover for 85 units of housing, mostly in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.

“If we let nature and the market run its course, we have a real issue because of the inventory and the amount of time it’s on the market,” said the president of lending affiliates for Boston Community Capital, Patricia Hanratty. “If the people who are in one of these units can afford to buy it back at $70,000 or $80,000,” she asked, “why is that not under consideration?”

One reason is that, as speakers said last month in a Dorchester symposium on REO properties, non-profits are often outbid by for-profit competition. Though observers say the quality and intentions of the buyers are mixed, the competition increases demand for the housing supply. And, as the director of the city’s Dept. of Neighborhood Development, Evelyn Friedman explained, that can keep the property values from going too low to make repairs unprofitable.

At 672 Adams Street, the new owner of the condo units sold the whole building in June to another buyer from Quincy for $235,000. With recent signs of repair work, the neighbor says, “In the end it turned out OK.”

At a three-family house on Bernard Street, in the Franklin Field area, the people who bought units from Scott and his associates in late 2005 even managed to stay in the building, after getting help from Boston Community Capital. Records show the units, including one with less than 1,000 square feet, sold for more than $900,000. Foreclosure petitions would later be filed on two of the units.

Hanratty said Boston Community Capital intervened at Bernard Street and other locations because the mortgages had monthly payments that were “incredibly high,” adding that “nobody looked to underwrite these loans to say this is what somebody could afford.”

Despite renovations, Hanratty said, the units, as they sold almost five years ago, were “vastly overpriced."

"They were very high, even then,” she added. “Just thinking about a three-decker on Bernard Street as being worth almost a million bucks is pretty challenging.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Open Seats Dominate Boston Primaries

If there’s anything that makes this year’s primary results from Boston unusual, it’s the number of open seats in the state legislature. Unlike recent mid-term primaries, this year’s had no contests for governor or US senator, so the local results mainly reflected small pockets of competition within a single party. But that was enough to increase the number of people who voted throughout Boston over the figure for September, 2008 by 17.8 percent.

The closest among the contests for an open seat in the House of Representatives was in the 5th Suffolk District (Bowdoin-Geneva, Uphams Corner, Dudley Triangle), where unofficial figures have Carlos Henriquez ahead of Barry Lawton by 41 votes. Though Henriquez received a late endorsement from the district’s most recent incumbent, Marie St. Fleur, the vote pattern looks geographical. Henriquez carried precincts closer to his base in the Dudley Triangle, while Lawton carried precincts near his base in Dorchester’s Ward 15. Also on the ballot were two perennial candidates—Althea Garrison and Roy Owens, who got a combined total of 626 votes. That’s short of Lawton’s figure by only 52 votes.

In the 4th Suffolk District (South Boston/Dorchester), a former aide to State Senator Jack Hart, Nick Collins won with 47.3% of the vote. Leading the other three Democrats was Mark McGonagle, with 35.9 percent. The race has also been viewed as a proxy rematch of last year’s race for mayor, with Collins the favorite of the Michael Flaherty camp. If that raises doubts about Mayor Thomas Menino’s coattails, it has to be noted that Flaherty lives in South Boston and, to no one’s surprise, carried the area last year.

In November, Collins will be faced by a Republican, Patrick Brennan. An accountant living in South Boston, he’s a Worcester native who grew up in New Hampshire. His website says he has been living in the Greater Boston area for six years.

Home base also played a part in the contest for the seat being vacated by Willie Mae Allen, in the 6th Suffolk District (parts of Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roslindale). Russell Holmes won with 32.9% of the vote. He carried precincts closer to his home in Mattapan, along with others along Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester. Karen Payne, who came in second with 22.5% of the vote, carried precincts near her home in Roslindale.

In West Roxbury’s 10th Suffolk District, where Rep. Mike Rush is giving up his seat to run for state senate, the winner was Ed Coppinger, topping a field of six Democrats with 39.6% of the Boston vote, and coming in first in all 15 precincts in the city. A mortgage loan officer involved in youth sports and community service, Coppinger is also the son of former State Representative Fancis X. Coppinger.

In the Democratic race for Walsh’s seat, Rush received 56.2% of the vote from precincts in Boston, where the contest with Michael F. Walsh (no relation to the incumbent), a West Roxbury native from Westwood, also drew 1588 blanks. Results also show Rush trailing in the other parts of the district, in Dedham, Norwood, and Westwood.

In November, Rush will be opposed by a Republican, Brad Williams. A West Roxbury resident who moved in from Norwood, Williams is an investment advisor who’s active in the Republican Party at the ward level.

The closest challenge to a state senate incumbent, against newly-elected Sal DiDomenico, resulted in another loss for Timothy Flaherty. In the Boston vote, Flaherty was ahead with 57.1% of the total. There were also two Democrats on the ballot in the Middlesex & Suffolk District, where Brighton State Senator Steve Tolman got 78.8% of the votes from Boston.

In the 2nd Suffolk District (Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Chinatown, Fenway, Back, Bay South End, Dorchester), State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz faced a more vigorous challenge from Roxbury attorney Hassan Williams. Chang-Díaz won a clear path to a second term by picking up 70% of the vote.

The 2nd Suffolk race was also a far cry from the close contest two years ago, when the incumbent was Dianne Wilkerson. The primary took place shortly before federal corruption charges were brought against Wilkerson, dashing her plans for a write-in campaign that was announced in expectation of a massive outpouring of support for Barack Obama. In this year’s primary, there were fewer votes cast—a decrease by 4774 votes, with 1087 blanks. As happened two years ago, Chang-Díaz had the advantage outside of Roxbury and Dorchester. Williams carried most of the other precincts, though he managed to lose six precincts in Ward 14 (Dorchester/Mattapan) that were carried two years ago by Wilkerson.

In the city, US Rep. Stephen Lynch from South Boston received 63.2% of the vote, over his Democratic challenger from Milton, Mac D’Alessandro. The challenger’s progressive platform won some precincts, mainly in Jamaica Plain and the Back Bay. In November, Lynch’s Republican opponent will be Vernon Harrison.

Also see segment on BNN News with Gin Dumcius, News Editor of the Dorchester Reporter, and Steve Poftak, Director of Research for the Pioneer Institute.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Shooting from the Hip near Codman Square?

The news of a shooting on Lyndhurst street can easily evoke the terrible summer of 2005. Back then, the troubles on this street near Dorchester’s Codman Square included drug-dealing and prostitution. So it wasn’t altogether surprising that the pastor of a church a few blocks away, Rev. Bruce Wall, would occupy a building on the street and put the problems on the map.

As for what happened last night, there's no denying that a 43 year-old man was shot in the neck. How does that matter to the community? To begin with, as The Boston Globe reports, the gunshots were heard by neighbors, and that’s definitely unsettling.

But is it a continuation of what happened in 2005? Not necessarily. By this morning, the Boston Police said the shooting was “fueled by a personal dispute,” and that the alleged shooter, a 27 year-old man from Dorchester, knew the victim. The suspect has since been arrested and was due for arraignment in Dorchester District Court this morning.

As The Globe makes clear, the area has had more violent crime since 2005, including an assault on another pastor. Residents usually point out that most of the street is quite stable, with attractive single-family homes that are, for the most part, well maintained. But there are multi-family buildings near the corner of Washington street—the epicenter of Rev. Wall’s “Hell Zone”—that have a history of problems. These include multiple foreclosure petitions and distressed sales.

If the Boston Police Dept. is correct, the story around last night’s shooting looks different from the configuration of dots in the first news reports. It can certainly be expected the Police Dept. would want the public to think it’s not all that dangerous to walk down Lyndhurst street on a warm summer evening—even if the public remains on guard. It does appear the latest shooting wasn’t a random robbery, or something triggered by the kind of turf war that often takes a toll on bystanders. If there are still dots on Lyndhurst street, they have to be connected in a different way.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Condo Prices Still Lag in Housing Rebound

As in the rest of Massachusetts, sales have picked up in Boston for homes and condominiums, though not always with a rise in prices.

According to figures from The Warren Group, sales of single-family homes in Massachusetts have increased through June of this year over the same period in 2009 by 28 percent. The increase for the second quarter was 35 percent.

The increase for condo sales in the first six months of 2010 was 30%, with an increase for the second quarter at more than fifty percent.

The brisk sales match levels that haven’t been seen since the boom years of 2005 and 2006, but the median prices are another matter. For single-family homes, the increase in June and for the first six months of 2010 was around 7 percent. For condos, the increase over the first six months was 5.7%, but the climb in the second quarter and in the month of June was lower, at less than 2 percent.

The Warren Group’s figures from Boston neighborhoods show a general flattening in prices later in the year, especially for condos, and even when sales were more numerous.

Among the areas with an above average increase in condo sales through June of 2010 were Brighton, Charlestown, South Boston, Jamaica Plain, and Mattapan. The largest increase in median price for these sales over the first six months was in Brighton, at more than 13 percent. In other areas, the median prices are down: in Charlestown by almost 2% and in South Boston by slightly more than 1½ percent.

In Jamaica Plain the increase in condo sales through June of this year was more than 39%, but the median price during that time was down by more than 7 percent. In June the drop was almost 8.7 percent.

The co-owner of the Jamaica Plain agency, McCormack & Scanlan, Karen McCormack, says one reason for a softening of condo prices was the ample supply of two-bedroom units.

“Because buyers had more choices,” she said, “there was this idea that buyers didn’t have to pay the asking price.”

But McCormack also reports more buyers from outer suburbs, attracted by Jamaica Plain’s combination of greenspace and proximity to downtown Boston.

“I’m definitely seeing again a resurgence of buyers from the suburbs, whose kids have grown up, and they’re selling their houses,” she said.

There was a different trend in areas close to downtown Boston, where the median price for condos increased over the first six months of 2010 by 12 percent. Sales volume was up, but only by 25% for the whole period, and less than 19% for the month of June.

There was also a contrast with last year in areas more severely affected by foreclosures and distressed sales. The increase in condo sales in Dorchester through June was below the statewide average, but the increase in median price was almost 28 percent. That compares with last year’s double-digit fall-off, when many units in multi-family houses were being scooped up in distressed sales for well below $100,000.

Also showing higher median prices for condos through June of this year, along with more sales, were Roxbury and part of the South End, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. With 118 transactions, the increase in median price for Roxbury and part of the South End was more than 22 percent. Though the number of condo sales through June in East Boston was down by almost 12 percent, the median price was up by almost 16 percent.

West Roxbury had what may have been the strongest contrast between the markets for condos and single-family homes.

For condos, the median price through June of this year was down by more than 20 percent, despite an increase in sales at 15 percent.

According to Joe Donnelly, an agent with West Roxbury’s Donahue-Brennan Real Estate, many of the condos are in brick apartment buildings dating from the 1960’s and 1970’s that were converted in the 1980’s.

“They went up the hottest and the hardest,” he said, “and they fell the most.”

But Donnelly says West Roxbury’s single-family market has lost less than ten percent of its value since the peak of the housing boom in 2005. Through June of this year, the market was close to the statewide average, with sales up by more than thirty percent and the median price a little better than average, increasing by almost 9 percent.

In other parts of Boston with more than twenty sales of single-family houses, there were double-digit increases in the median price through June in Hyde Park and Mattapan, with figures up in South Boston and Charlestown by about 32 percent.

Real estate agents readily acknowledge the sales volume has been given a boost by federal tax credits that were mostly for first-time home-buyers.

“The tax credit has served its purpose and has served as a stimulus to the market,” says The Warren Group CEO Timothy Warren, Jr. “Now, it’s time to withdraw that taxpayer support and let the chips fall as they may, and really see what the market will reach as a natural equilibrium.”

Warren credits two other factors with encouraging buyers: low interest rates, and the improving economy. So far, the recovery has been stronger than average in Massachusetts, but the state is not immune to more recent signs that the recovery is slowing down.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Presidential Boost, Without Incumbency

See BNN News coverage and interview with the news editor of the Dorchester Reporter, Gintautus Dumcius.

Is US Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass. , 9th District) in so much trouble that he needs a lift from a President more than six weeks before a primary election? Or does Lynch’s Democratic rival Mac D’Alessandro look hopelessly overmatched by today’s show of party unity at the Ironworkers Hall in South Boston?

From one campaign season to the next, things do have a way of coming full circle, and that can be said about Lynch and the President who came to endorse him—Bill Clinton.

After being deserted last year by much of organized labor for the US senate campaign by Martha Coakley, Lynch—himself a former president of Ironworkers, Local 7--is being challenged this year by a Democrat who is a former political director for SEIU's northeast region. Under attack by D’Alessandro (see NNN interview) for a no vote on the health care reform package championed by President Obama, Lynch has fired back through his campaign by trying to depict the Democratic insurgent from the left as a tool of special interests—namely the more dogmatic supporters of health care reform in, well, organized labor. But, at today's rally, he was back in a union stronghold, where political allies were sprinkled with supporters from labor.

The D’Alessandro camp responded today by citing contributions to the Lynch campaign from the financial services sector—as in big banks that wrecked the economy and needed bailouts. Add to that the lingering fiscal consequences of Lynch's support for allowing the war in Iraq almost eight years ago.

But the voters are prone to anger and they’re worried about jobs, as in today’s and tomorrow’s. And, as Clinton put it, Lynch is the candidate who will get things done.

Lynch talked about the courage to make tough decisions, and his well-known vote on health care reform was viewed by many party regulars as bordering on the heretical, and all the more puzzling for his professed misgivings about the lack of a single-payer plan. As it turned out, Lynch’s vote played well enough on East Broadway. And health care reform has its share of critics—even among rank-and-file members of labor unions with good health coverage who fear they have something to lose.

If a Democratic member of Congress running for re-election hosts a rally in South Boston with Bill Clinton, does that mean trouble for Barack Obama? Probably no more than in January, when South Boston was carried by Coakley’s rival, Scott Brown. Though two Republicans are also running in the 9th District--Keith Lepor and Vernon Harrison--the timing of Clinton's appearance suggests more concern about the primary--if not whether Lynch can win, then by how much.

Two years before Brown's victory in the special election, in the Massachusetts presidential primary, South Boston Democrats went for Hillary Clinton, while Obama took the whole city. More importantly, Hillary Clinton carried Massachusetts, which is arguably closer to the profile of Democratic voters throughout the 9th Congressional District.

Speaking at the rally, Lynch went even further back, praising the deficit-busting years of Bill Clinton. Maybe there was too much nostalgia to mistake that for the deficit concerns of angry voters in 2010. But, sixteen years after Democrats were clobbered in the first mid-term election under Clinton, the former President could bask in the role of being, if not an insurgent, then at least a non-incumbent. And, without pitting stimulus against fiscal austerity, he could even praise Obama. After all, if 2010 really were 1994 all over again, the President would crawl out from under and stay in the White House for another six years.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blundering Through Boston's Boundaries

Note: these thoughts on the mapping of Boston were provoked by an editorial in this week's Dorchester Reporter and an article in the Jamaica Plain Gazette about new census maps from the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Thirty years ago, I lived near the intersection of Adams street and Victory road. If you had asked me where this was, it wouldn’t have told you much if I only said it was Dorchester. To convey a sense of place, there would have to be something more narrowed down, yet large enough to fill a pigeonhole.

If I had been selling a home there at the time, I would have had to admit I was on the boundary of St. Ann’s and St. Mark’s parishes. Too bad I was on the Saint Mark’s side, because St. Ann’s supposedly had a better school. But I didn’t have kids at the time, and my excursions around the neighborhood usually took me through Fields Corner, or to weekly piano practice at Dorchester House.

To be more precise, I was living in you might have called a place without qualities, an interval surrounded by more definite places such as Pope’s Hill, Fields Corner, or even King Square. For lack of anything more interesting, I would sometimes mention I lived near the scene of an event connected to one of Boston’s most legendary crimes, the Brinks robbery. That scene was an apartment complex across the street, where one of the partners in crime, Specs O’Keefe, was shot by a hit-man named Trigger Burke. Though the complex was renamed when it was converted into condominiums, I still called it the “Trigger Burke Apartments.”

Then there was the old-timer who asked me where I lived. After I did my best to answer, he said, “That’s still Dorchester.” For the next thirty years, his words would continue to irritate, perplex, or amuse.

In a city with as much change in its land mass as Boston, even the most genuine boundaries will migrate. Place names that originate with natural features—Back Bay, South Bay, the Calf Pasture—drift off as metaphors attached to other things: a stately grid of brick rowhouses, a big-box shopping center, or the hulking remains of a sewage facility between UMass Boston and the Kennedy Library.

As Saul Bellow's lowly functionary reflects in Looking for Mr. Green, it's in the nature of things to break down over time--to the point where there's little more than a label or a convention: "It was that they stood for themselves by agreement, and were natural and not unnatural by agreement, and when the things themselves collapsed the agreement became visible. What was it, otherwise, that kept cities from looking peculiar?"

If that weren't enough, there can still be conflicts between official maps, such as zip codes and—before annexation to Boston--what used to be the lines between the independent communities of Dorchester and Roxbury.

But the “still Dorchester” response can be irritating if you think of boundaries as a constant that keeps the change within from becoming shapeless or chaotic or, better still, that provides room for change. Even if you allow that some boundaries matter differently over time (for example, with the closing of parishes, or political redistricting), there is some truth to what boundaries imply: that whatever elements they contain have some things in common, if not the same things at all times.

If you read Sam Bass Warner’s Streetcar Suburbs, you can learn how, at the end of the 19th century, the rich builders of St. Peter’s Parish in Dorchester lived just around the corner from the immigrants in three-deckers. That extreme range of income in a tightly defined area might be a thing of the past, but respecting boundaries can also make it possible to find things in common between people who are normally assumed to be quite different. And if you were to read a local newspaper published almost one hundred years ago, you would find local residents had many of the same concerns as would be covered decades later: crime, land development, liquor establishments, and (less openly expressed) demographic change itself.

Place names will always be subject to revisions. Some of these are the wishful branding of developers or public officials, hoping to obliterate something in the past—whether by changing the name of a once notorious housing development, or replacing the immigrant stew of the old West End with streets named for New England Transcendentalists.

In my own family, there was one relative who suppressed Jamaica Plain and used a return address that said “Moss Hill, Massachusetts.” But, in the years when I lived near New England Baptist Hospital, I also learned about the need for nuance. Even if the hospital insisted on being in Boston, the return address on my envelopes said Roxbury. By word of mouth I was from Mission Hill. I was only from Boston when I was concerned about luggage being stranded in a foreign country.

As a local news journalist, I’m in a field with high risk for getting tangled up in boundaries. I can still remember the daily newspaper that shorthandedly described a violent crime near the western fringe of Roxbury, around Egleston Square, as happening in “West Roxbury.” Then there was a feature story on demographic change in the 1970’s, about the last white person living on a street near Grove Hall. When I continued the article on another page, I noticed someone who was too quick with the paste-up knife had shortened the headline to “Last White Person in Dorchester.”

Even worse is when people in the media do their own improvising, as when a story about crime along Columbia Road described the area as the “Badlands.”

With my bearings always at the mercy of deadlines and tectonic slippage, I feel the need for a back-up. Some of this comes from talking boundaries with people who know them better than I do. When that fails, I use the little red book published by the Boston Fire Department. The book doesn't show a date, but it was published when the Fire Commissioner was Leo D. Stapleton—which means when Boston's mayor was Ray Flynn.

Aside from listing the streets of Boston, the book has columns of different length showing where the streets begin and end, and all the cross streets in between. The streets are also labeled according to neighborhoods, sometimes with utmost precision--for example, a change from Dorchester to Mattapan at 1150 Blue Hill Avenue. Unlike with some official publications, there is no such thing as “North Dorchester.” The North End, South End, Bay Village, and Chinatown are missing as well, lumped in with Beacon Hill and the Back Bay as “Boston Proper.” Allston and Brighton are both in the book, but without a cohabitative hyphen.

At the end of the book there are pages that are completely blank, except for the word “Notes.” Evidently, someone thought the true map of Boston would always need updates or corrections.

The publishers of the book aren’t identified, though they express their gratitude for information from “users of the Guide on missing streets, streets that have been altered or torn down, and similar changes.”

If that’s too deep into a parallel universe, I can still admire the publishers for a degree of humility that would be hard to find among journalists and planners. “Given the size and amount of change occurring in the Boston area, however,” says the publishers’ note, “it is almost inevitable that some inaccuracies will occur.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

BPD Command, MAMLEO on Diversity

To explain why diversity on the Boston Police Dept. was important, Giovanna Negretti acted as a translator for an elderly Brighton resident, Lilian Perez.

Speaking Spanish at City Council hearing Tuesday night, Perez told city councilors about being robbed in her home in 2004. She said she was then unable to find a police officer who could listen to her story in Spanish. When she came back to see police later on, she said she was told she should speak English.

The executive director of the advocacy group, Oíste, Negretti blamed the experience on a shortage of blacks and Latinos in higher positions and specialized units on the Boston Police Dept. Negretti contends the shortage hurts performance and perception, even hampering the ability to combat youth violence.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “it’s about the safety of the children and the safety of the city.”

Top police officials at the hearing talked about efforts to increase diversity in higher ranks, as well as their own dissatisfaction with the dictates of civil service exam results.

The Boston Police Dept says diversity in command staff has increased to record levels. Department figures show people of color account for 40% of the command staff appointed by Commissioner Ed Davis. That’s above the levels when the department still used race-based hiring. The department also reports that, under Davis, the percentage of minority officers has increased on specialized units, with the largest gain, at 16 percent, on the Youth Violence Strike Force.

But figures were also compiled by District 4 (Dorchester Mattapan) Councilor Charles Yancey for all positions above the rank of patrolman, for which the pool of candidates is determined mainly by civil service exam results. Yancey's figures showed that in March, 2010, Asians, blacks and Latinos accounted for only 11 of the department’s top 100 positions. His figures also showed that all but 6 of the 74 lieutenants and all but one of 23 lieutenant-detectives were white.

And The Boston Globe reports that, at a ceremony in February, there was only one person of color among the 39 people promoted to sergeant and lieutenant.

Davis says barriers to more diversity include civil service exams, which he describes as not valid for deciding which candidate is the best for a promotion.

The exams are currently facing a legal challenge from police officers of color, including some from Boston.

The head of the city’s Legal Dept., Bill Sinnott, said the tests are still considered a valid measure of skills and knowledge. When Councilor Chuck Turner suggested that the city stop defending the tests in court, Sinnott warned that abandoning the test would backfire.

“The problem with conceding against federal standards,” said Sinnott, “is that we’ll find ourselves as defendants with a new set of plaintiffs.”

Davis told councilors he would be willing to have more discussions about promotions with representatives of the Mass. Assn. of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO). He also said he expects a committee exploring possible changes in promotion policy will make recommendations to Mayor Menino by the end of the summer.

Though Davis said he favored more transparency about reasons for promotions, he said he was against promotions that were racially based.

“I will not change my standards,” he said. “I will not pick people based on race. They have to do the job.”

MAMLEO members say some black and Latino officers also missed out on promotions that would have been allowed by civil service. According to MAMLEO, racial disparities in command produce disparities in assignments and discipline.

A former Boston Police Superintendent, William Celester, argued that more people of color should be in command positions most directly concerned with youth violence.

“What those kids on the street need is role models,” said Celester. “These kids need to see somebody of color who’s in charge.”

The hearing was called by Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley. In a statement released before the hearing, she said she hoped it would increase understanding of problems around diversity and help make recommendations for action. She said diversity should be considered in decisions around police command, though only as one factor.

“But that being said, my race, my gender, my background do inform the work I do each and every day and do mean I view things through a unique lens,” said Pressley. “And I think that it is important that there are officers on the street and in headquarters who have grown up in similar circumstances as the people they are serving.”