Who saved Harvard Sq apts?

by bill cunningham

THURSDAY FEBRUARY 23, 2012—WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING: According to the official Harvard Gazette, City Hall and Harvard University have just saved 25 low-income households from losing their homes—almost singlehandedly.  You can read the article, “Affordable housing, saved,” here. It’s true that those affordable apartments, at Chapman Arms on the edge of Harvard Square, really were at risk a few short months ago. And it’s true that Harvard and the City played key roles in preserving them. But the most important actors were simply left out of the story—namely, the tenants themselves.

Yet at the dedication ceremony for Chapman Arms almost all of the speakers credited the tenants for the work they did to make this preservation deal possible.

 The Gazette features city manager Bob Healy’s “tribute to the commitment of the Cambridge city council. It’s also important to remember all that Harvard has done in partnership with the city of Cambridge in the area of affordable housing.” However this happy partnership did not just happen.

 The Gazette correctly reports that Chapman Arms was the “first implementation of the state’s new preservation statute, Chapter 40 T.” But the law does not enforce itself. The heirs of Chapman’s late owner tried to sell the building without giving notice to residents and the State as required under the 40 T law. If an alert advocate had not caught them, they would have sold Chapman to a private developer and it would have been all over.

 Then Councilor Marjorie Decker invited the City, CHA, and Homeowners Rehab (HRI) to meet with residents joined by ACT, CEOC, and CASLS legal services. Residents mobilized to speak out at city council’s public comment periods and their message was carried by cable TV throughout the city.

The former building manager apparently felt threatened by the activity of the tenants. This manager tried to stimulate resentment between the 25 Section 8 households and the 25 who were paying moderate and market rents. For example, documents were left on tenants’ doors that revealed the rents paid by everyone in the building (no names were included but apartment numbers were listed). But that did not work. For the most part, the market tenants supported the subsidized tenants. They understood that getting a nonprofit to purchase their building would be in everyone’s best interest.

The saga of this building really goes back more than four decades. 

 It was originally known as Craigie Arms. When it was bought by Harvard in 1967, the tenants immediately formed a union and vowed to fight any attempt to evict them or raise their rents. Harvard did absolutely no maintenance. In January 1969 an intruder walked through an unsecured outer door and murdered a woman. City councilors introduced orders citing Harvard for “flagrant violations” of housing codes and asking the city solicitor bring criminal charges. Cases like this added to the determination of the majority of Cambridge residents to bring back rent control in 1970.

Around ten years later, Harvard decided to get the building off rent control by not renting apartments there and evicting those who would not leave as the building emptied and became dangerous. In response to such tactics the Cambridge Rent Control Coalition wrote an ordinance to stop larger landlords holding apartments vacant for a year or more. Harvard opposed this law but the City adopted it in 1984.

Harvard refused to abide by the law. Instead they bickered and bargained until a deal was made to get the building removed from rent control.

• Harvard paid $10,000 per apartment into the City’s affordable housing fund.

• They also agreed to accept 25 subsidized apartments. Harvard’s chosen developer would secure State backing for this project—he sat on the board of the Mass. Housing Finance Agency (MHFA).

Thus it was active tenants who saved these apartments for the community by getting rent control in 1970. Tenants saved them again in 1987 by forcing Harvard to make a hard bargain. And this year tenants were again instrumental in bringing Harvard to the table.

The Harvard Gazette’s view was echoed in the real estate weekly, Banker and Tradesman, which ran its own front-page story on Chapman Arms.