Andrew McFarland

Holding Their Ground

From left to right, beginning in the back row: Gloria Rosario, Michael Kane, Esther Echevarria, Gloria Gomez, and Dorothy Guice gather for a Rutland Housing Tenants Organization meeting in front of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End, where the group meets often to fight to keep affordable housing — and diversity — in the South End.

The following is a story I followed and wrote throughout the spring and summer of 2012 regarding a group of tenants turned activists in an affordable housing complex in Boston’s South End. Here’s a link to the story on the Boston Phoenix’s website. 

Esther Echevarria worked as an activist before coming to Boston. In her native Puerto Rico she fought to fund education programs for special-needs students, even organizing protests in front of La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion in San Juan.

“I have a deaf daughter, so it was a personal issue for me,” said Echevarria. “If I have to, I will fight for rights — for anybody’s.”

After arriving in Boston and moving into Rutland Housing, a low-income housing development in the South End, she thought that her career as an activist was over.

That was, until she and her fellow tenants were notified that their affordable housing was about to become a lot less affordable. Forty years before, when Rutland Housing was built, its owners signed a federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 contract, agreeing to maintain affordable apartments for eligible tenants in lieu of the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). That contract expired May 31 of this year, leaving the owners free to raise rents to better reflect maket values — which they did, by an average of $500 per apartment.

“For me, it’s very scary,” said Dorothy Guice, who has lived at Rutland Housing for over 33 years. “I feel like [these tenants] are my family, and it’s morally wrong that the people with money can just step over the little people.”

Rutland Housing is just one of more than 900 such privately owned, low-income developments across Massachusetts, incorporated in the ’70s and ’80s as a short-term, cost-effective solution for public housing. Today, they are ticking time bombs in gentrifying neighborhoods like the South End, as the low-income contracts run out one by one.

What’s more, as these affordable-housing developments turn into regular developments, they’re not being replaced.

“The need for affordable housing has grown substantially, but the supply has not kept pace with that demand,” said Rhonda Siciliano, a spokesperson for HUD’s regional office in Boston.

After the Parkers raised rents, HUD and the BHA issued eligible Rutland tenants special “enhanced vouchers” to make up the difference. Although this aid allows the current 44 families to remain at Rutland Housing for this year, it’s a precarious fix for tenants. Enhanced vouchers, like many welfare programs, are easy targets for a budget-strapped Congress.

Moreover, a Republican victory in November could send HUD programs to the chopping block. This past spring, Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, proposed major reductions to HUD’s budget for the 2013 fiscal year. On the campaign trail, Romney has even proposed eliminating HUD altogether.

Even if the voucher program remains intact, tenants could be forced out of their homes if the owners, David and Karen Parker, choose to convert their apartments to condominiums. The Parkers have expressed no intention of moving away from rentals, but they also haven’t ruled out the option.

“If [the current tenants] want to be there for 40 years, they can,” said David Parker. But when the units open up, he said, “I want to have some choice.”

FIGHTING BACK

The tenants say they aren’t simply fighting for their homes — they are upholding the integrity of their community.

“We can live there as long as we want, but after that, the affordable housing is gone,” said Echevarria.

Unlike most public housing developments, Rutland Housing had no tenant organization, so a small group of residents began organizing from the ground-up beginning in February.

“It’s my home. If I don’t get out and see what’s happening, it’s on me,” said Guice.

Within a matter of months, residents were making important allies.

Guice, Echevarria, and others reached out to Michael Kane, the executive director of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants, a Jamaica Plain-based non-profit that advocates for affordable housing residents. Since 1983, the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants has successfully saved 2000 affordable housing units in the South End alone.

With Kane’s help, a small group of tenants founded the Rutland Housing Tenants Organization (RHTO) and began meeting regularly, writing letters to the Parkers and city officials. Throughout the spring, they courted and garnered the support of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Archbishop Sean O’Malley, State Representative Byron Rushing and members of the City Council. Eventually they collected over 600 South Enders’ signatures on a petition for a new contract.

But David Parker said he and his partners have fully complied with the terms of the original contract and should not be pressured into a new agreement. “I don’t see the point with project-based [contracts],” said Parker.

For the tenants, keeping affordable housing in the South End is their ultimate concern. Simply pushing out low-income residents of gentrifying neighborhoods doesn’t create a better city, they said.

“In the past 30 years, this community has changed,” said Carmen Massa, a member of the tenants’ organization who has lived in Rutland Housing for 26 years and raised seven children there. In 1980, the area around Rutland Housing was 67 percent African-American, but it has since changed to 62 percent white according to the 2010 census. Real estate prices have boomed alongside this demographic shift. A 3.5-bedroom condo at Rutland Place, adjacent to Rutland Housing, sold in June for a whopping $2.6 million.

While the South End’s overall makeup becomes more white, the area’s public housing remains a bastion for low-income residents and people of color.

“That’s why it’s important to fight to preserve these units,” said Massa.

US VS. THEM

Racial tensions came to the surface during a special hearing held by the City Council at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End on May 29.

Defending the Parkers’ choice to not renew the project-based contract, Jim Keeney, the Vice President of the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association, informed Rutland Housing tenants that “they can even take [their enhanced vouchers] to Puerto Rico, if that’s where they come from.”

The comment generated boos and jeers within the church packed with tenants and activists. And although Keeney has since insisted that he intended his remarks to be factual and not derogatory (tenants can transfer their vouchers to Puerto Rico and other parts of the United States), the moment nonetheless crystallized a sense of “us versus them” between tenants and their wealthier neighbors.

Several weeks after that hearing, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the Parkers to work with them and the tenants to hammer out a better plan. Councilor Tito Jackson offered to mediate talks between the tenants and the landlord, but Parker has since declined.

Even with little legal or political recourse remaining to them, RHTO members plan to grow and take further action. Currently, only five residents are officially members, although more occasionally attend meetings and demonstrations.

RHTO members hope to educate their peers so that they too can defend their rights as tenants.

“At the beginning, I was extremely scared,” said Massa, “Now I feel empowered.”

“The next generation that come needs to have affordable housing,” said Guice, “If you always give back to the community, you’ll get something back in return.”

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