Bancroft Apartments, Boston

Resident-Controlled Subsidized Rental Project


In the early 1980s, HUD had about 4,500 units in Massachusetts slated for disposition. About 40 percent of these units had been developed by one owner, Maurice Simon. Simon’s company had rehabilitated 800 rent supplement units and over half the 2,000 Section 221(d)(3)[5] properties rehabilitated through the Boston Urban Rehabilitation Program. By the mid-1970s, half these units were in default, and conditions looked bleak, with faulty wiring, peeling plaster, lack of adequate heat and plumbing, and leaking roofs. Then Greater Boston Legal Services began representing tenants in civil suits against Simon. (Bratt 1989)

In 1982, HUD became the “mortgagee in possession” of Simon’s buildings, known as the Granite Properties. In 1983, the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation (CEDAC)[6] convened a task force on HUD distressed properties. The task force worked to ensure that HUD sold the 1,800-unit Granite package to nonprofit owners, rather than the highest bidder as it usually did.

In the late 1970s, Urban Edge Housing Corporation, a local CDC, had already begun working to preserve three Simon-owned buildings in the Egleston Square neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. The CDC now admits it was naive when it bought the development known as the Bancroft Apartments without adequate subsidy for the many necessary repairs.

Neighborhood Context

Jamaica Plain has welcomed many waves of immigrants – from Germany and Ireland at the beginning of this century, and more recently from the Caribbean and Latin America – and today it is one of Boston’s most racially diverse areas. (Crawford 1994) The latest wave of immigrants, however, have been young, upwardly mobile professionals and artists. In the mid 1980s, gentrification transformed several neighborhoods that had declined during the 1970s. Yet poverty persists; in 1990, over 19 percent of Jamaica Plain’s population lived below the poverty level, while Boston’s overall poverty rate was just over 8 percent.

The Egleston Square area of Jamaica Plain has a reputation for being unsafe. “Five to seven years ago, things here were really bad,” said Greg Molina, who was hired by Boston’s Public Facilities Department to promote local economic development. “People used to be really scared; they would see gangs on the corner, bums. There’s no sense of that anymore. But people still have that stereotype idea that they should be afraid of Egleston.”

Molina cited Egleston Square’s many abandoned buildings as one source of the problem. Until 1989, Egleston Square was the site of a train station that was relocated as part of an improvement plan. “The closing of the T station affected Egleston Square merchants immensely,” said Molina. “Planners thought that removing the elevated tracks and station would actually enhance the commercial atmosphere of Egleston Square – people were wary of stopping and shopping because of crime or the perception of crime under the tracks…. But unfortunately, [the station closing] just killed all the foot traffic.”

The three buildings known as the Bancroft Apartments are near the old station.[7] The three-story brick structures, on two non-adjacent sites with a common back parking lot, contain 45 units altogether. One site faces Columbus Avenue, a major thoroughfare between downtown Boston and its western suburbs. The units facing Columbus are classic Boston rowhouses, with front stoops, high ceilings, and bay windows facing a park-like setting. The units on Bancroft Street, however, are plain brick boxes facing a vacant lot.

Sponsor

Urban Edge owns and manages nearly 500 units, including the Bancroft apartments. Urban Edge’s office is just a few blocks away from Bancroft, its first multi-family rental property and acquisition from HUD.

Urban Edge, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1994, began as a nonprofit real estate broker. The Ecumenical Social Action Committee, founded in the 1960s, formed the brokerage to fight redlining. When the program grew, it “spun off” as a separate company. Mossik Hacobian, a trained architect who joined Urban Edge in 1978 and eventually became Executive Director, described Urban Edge’s evolution from brokerage to multifamily ownership and management:

“There were quite a few vacant buildings in the neighborhood, and we felt we needed to intervene in this cycle of disinvestment and abandonment. We received a demonstration grant to buy one to three family houses, renovate them, and sell them to owner occupants. Then in early 80s, so many people wanted to live and speculate in the neighborhood that…we became concerned that multifamily units that had been serving low-income families would be converted to higher-priced housing. Our involvement in homeownership was based on a belief that residents should have control of their housing and the development that happens within their community. When we turned to multifamily rental housing we were still trying to capture the same concept.”

Today Urban Edge consists of two separate corporations: Urban Edge Housing Corporation, a tax-exempt nonprofit; and Urban Edge Property Management, a nonprofit that is not tax exempt. Altogether, Urban Edge employs about 50 people, a quarter of whom live in its developments. Urban Edge oversees two commercial buildings and 475 residential units in 10 developments, ranging in size from 6 to 183 units.

Acquisition and Rehab

Before submitting a proposal to buy the Bancroft property, Urban Edge approached tenants to explain the plan and gather their opinions. That allowed the organization to structure a proposal that was responsive to residents needs, Hacobian said.

Although Urban Edge’s first bid in 1979 for HUD disposition property was unsuccessful, it was a useful learning experience for the group. When Urban Edge later submitted a proposal to acquire the Bancroft Apartments through a Transfer of Physical Assets, its staff was better prepared. “This time we knew what we had to do to qualify as a purchaser,” Hacobian said. “We raised the downpayment by selling four limited partnerships.”

In 1981, Urban Edge acquired the Bancroft property for $300,000. The following year, HUD sold Urban Edge a 103-unit package on several scattered sites in Jamaica Plain and Dorchester. Urban Edge acquired both these developments under similar terms: both obtained 15-year Section 8 project-based subsidy contracts. Practically overnight, Urban Edge became responsible for 148 subsidized rental units.

When Urban Edge acquired the Bancroft and Jamaica Plain Apartments, it intended to pay for capital needs with operating revenue. To formulate its operating budget, Urban Edge had inspected the property and developed a list of needed repairs. The buildings were in poor physical condition. “Basically, HUD’s attitude was, they were occupied, so they must be habitable,” said Urban Edge construction manager Matthew Yarmolinsky. HUD had supposedly rehabbed the buildings before Urban Edge bought them, he said, but the minimal improvements came after about 15 years of deferred maintenance. A few years into the process of running the buildings, Urban Edge needed more money for repairs, and consequently spent nearly 10 years piecing together funds for necessary improvements. At the same time, the need for capital improvements at Jamaica Plain Apartments, where the difficulties were compounded by the scattered sites, added to the complexity of the process.

Between 1989 and 1995, Urban Edge estimated, it completed capital improvements to Bancroft totaling $1.5 million. A $750,000 grant from Boston’s housing linkage program in 1988 had begun the improvements to Bancroft and three other HUD-subsidized developments. This first-time use of linkage funds for rehab set a precedent for affordable housing preservation – not just production – to become a legitimate use of such funds.

Envisioning a $2 million capital improvement program for 200 units ($10,000 per unit), Urban Edge negotiated for an increase in the Section 8 subsidy. Urban Edge used its and HUD’s inspections to show that existing replacement reserves and escrow could not meet capital needs. HUD agreed to increase subsidies to allow Urban Edge to escrow up to $1,000, rather than $300, per unit per year. Other sources of funding then fell into place. Urban Edge received a $215,000 grant for Bancroft from the Federal Home Loan Bank’s Affordable Housing Program, along with a tax credit, which it is trying to syndicate to provide equity for a second phase of work.

Phase one improvements included all new windows, bathrooms, and flooring; many new kitchen cabinets; electrical improvements and converted light fixtures (to fluorescent); amounting to a cost of about $17-18,000 per unit. Additional work included masonry, roof repairs, and site improvements.

The rehab required no tenant relocation, which saved money but added to the complexity of the process. Yarmolinsky explained, “The longest the bathroom would be out of commission was 7-10 working days, but the tenants were still able to live in the unit. We relied on the fact that the residents either had friends or family nearby to use the bath and shower facilities, and we also provided a stipend for the inconvenience. The cooperation by the residents was phenomenal.”

Even after such extensive improvements, Urban Edge did not raise rents, which are set by HUD based on a formula in the Section 8 contract. But without subsidized rents, Hacobian stressed, Urban Edge would not have been able to afford the capital improvement program and still serve such low-income residents. HUD is under no obligation to renew the Section 8 contracts when they expire in 1999; yet like Minnie Clark at Marksdale, Urban Edge hopes to receive at least a 5-year renewal.

While Urban Edge refinanced the mortgage on Bancroft in 1991, it couldn’t pay its increased debt service through interest reduction alone. “By carefully scheduling capital improvements, we could reap a return in operating costs,” said Yarmolinsky. Having identified a need above $2 million just for 45 units at Bancroft alone, Urban Edge sorted its list, beginning with basics like code compliance, and moving to what was needed to restore the building to like-new condition. Next, Yarmolinsky and his staff prioritized the work based on which repairs were most essential and would yield the greatest savings over time. For example, work that helped conserve water was a high priority. “Water bills in the city of Boston have probably quadrupled or quintupled in the past five years,” Hacobian noted, “and they’re expected to continue to increase at a rate of 15 to 20 percent a year.”

Neighborhood Context: Ten Years Later

The Bancroft buildings on Columbus Avenue are modest yet respectable, resembling many other renovated blocks in Boston. The buildings on Bancroft Street are less presentable but reasonably secure, despite some graffiti, litter, and young men gambling on the sidewalk. The area sees little through traffic, and the project’s only open space is its triangular-shaped parking lot. The parking lot is also used as a play area, although there are several playgrounds nearby. Parents clearly feel more secure watching their kids through the kitchen windows. But the parking lot is not always so safe; until recently, it has been the site of muggings and a repository for stolen cars.

The Bancroft site reflects Egleston Square’s concurrent trends of revitalization and decline. But signs of revitalization are increasing, according to Greg Molina, economic development coordinator for the neighborhood. “Now, some who were in gangs are involved with community youth, making a difference. The crime rate went down, the community started working together. More people are saying ‘enough is enough,'” said Molina. “There is still a lot of work to be done, but the atmosphere in Egleston Square has changed. There has been an increasing feeling of optimism and hope.”

In 1991 the City of Boston, Urban Edge, the Egleston Square Neighborhood Association, and other groups formed a partnership to revitalize the area, primarily through housing and open space improvements. In the past decade, most of the abandoned buildings in the Egleston Square have been acquired and renovated. With the housing problem under control for now, Urban Edge has expanded into commercial development. In 1991, the City designated Urban Edge to transform the former train station into a retail complex named Egleston Center. “We see Egleston Center as an anchor project to revitalize the neighborhood,” said Molina, while admitting that Egleston Square is still “a hard sell.”

A shooting near Egleston Square “heightened everyone’s concern,” Hacobian said, but also led to some positive developments. A bank that had just foreclosed on a commercial building where the shooting had occurred offered the building to Urban Edge. The YMCA, which had already been considering opening a branch in Egleston Square, agreed to become a tenant in the building. The Ecumenical Social Action Committee also became tenant, operating an alternative high school for drop-outs. Urban Edge moved its community services and maintenance departments there. And Fleet Bank agreed to park a trailer nearby to serve as a temporary branch until the bank opens one in Egleston Center. “This neighborhood has never had a bank,” Hacobian said.

Security

About four years into Urban Edge’s involvement in multifamily housing, the organization realized it had not fully understood the scope of its duties. “With homeownership, you finish a building, sell it, and go on to the next one,” Hacobian said. “But with multifamily, you have this ongoing relationship with the residents. You have to have good management.”

Urban Edge started a community services department in 1986. The department surveys Urban Edge residents biannually, seeking feedback about services and the neighborhood. The survey also asks residents to prioritize a list of 15 to 20 services. “Safety, after-school programs, and day care are always among the top five choices,” Hacobian said.

Urban Edge now has a good handle on safety and security, according to Hacobian. “Basically, we make it clear that we’re not going to look the other way. Residents know that we will do whatever it takes to achieve the goal of reducing drug activity in the neighborhood.” This has included summoning reluctant tenants to testify in court, allowing police to use vacant apartments for stakeouts, and giving police a list of building residents and keys to common areas. “The police now have the means to pursue somebody into the building if they suspect something illegal is going on,” said Hacobian,he added, “This idea came out of the tenants’ council.”[8] For one location where drug activity has been particularly rampant, Urban Edge is seeking assistance through HUD’s drug elimination program. Urban Edge also participates in a Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency (MHFA) initiative that helps pay a security company to patrol MHFA-financed CDC-owned properties and other properties nearby.

Some of Urban Edge’s security efforts, such as monthly meetings with the police and other community leaders on neighborhood security, have become part of the community’s social life. For example, after a shooting in nearby Roxbury,[9] this group decided to do something “a little more creative than just wait for the police,” recalled Urban Edge board chair Lillian Cooper. “People were getting fed up. One woman said, ‘We should take back the streets.’ Mossik said, ‘Okay, lets do it – next Tuesday.'” This began the “Take Back the Streets Campaign” in spring 1991. Residents began patrolling one particularly active corner in warmer months. Cooper explained, “The idea was not to have a confrontation, just to be visible. The drug dealers didn’t know what was going on. [The patrol] was mostly women. Drug buyers stopped coming. They didn’t want to be seen. Of course, that doesn’t stop the dealing, but it got it out of our neighborhood.” The group began congregating in a little playground, and the patrol expanded to three nights a week and became like a block party, with performers, games, and food. Urban Edge has continued the program each year, although participation has dwindled since that first summer.

“There’s two ways you can deal with security,” Hacobian commented. “One way is the punitive way – something happens and you punish it. The other way is preventative – you eliminate the opportunity for it to happen by enhancing the things that are safe and instill a sense of community pride.”

Governance

Urban Edge’s board of directors has 15 regular members and 7 alternates, of whom 10 are tenants. “Our goal is to have a majority of the Board consist of residents of Urban Edge developments,” said Hacobian, and Urban Edge encourages resident involvement in all decisions that affect their homes and neighborhood.

Urban Edge’s by-laws mandate that board composition reflect the diversity of the community, a mix of black, white, and Latino. Hacobian said Urban Edge looks for board members with a commitment to the organization’s mission. He noted that board members should be committed to diversity, affirmative action, and affordable housing. Urban Edge also looks for willingness to commit time, to monthly meetings and one-hour workshops held beforehand. The board generally reaches decisions by consensus, Hacobian said, so members need to be prepared to talk. And the board tries to recruit people with some knowledge of the business, or for new initiatives, such as Urban Edge’s recent focus on community services and youth programs.

A majority of Urban Edge’s board members are women, pointed out Lillian Cooper, a Roxbury resident serving her second term as chair of Urban Edge’s board. Cooper joined the board after going into semi-retirement 10 years ago. Hacobian also noted that activist women are “the backbone of a lot of community development.”

A diversity task force recently formed to ensure that such inclusiveness also extends to Urban Edge’s hiring policies. “Ten years ago, Urban Edge had a different staff make-up,” commented Cooper, who is black. “Now there are more minorities. The upper echelon is still white male, but there will be changes in that over time.”

Property Management

Urban Edge Property Management, governed by Urban Edge Housing Corporation’s board, is a 30-person company that oversees a budget of about $5.5 million. Subsidies account for about 60 percent of the budget, while the rest is generated mostly from rent.

Urban Edge first undertook property management in 1983, when it owned 175 units in Bancroft and two other developments, all of which were deteriorated. By 1985, when Urban Edge’s portfolio had grown to 307 units in six developments, it hired a consultant to evaluate its property management services. Urban Edge adopted the consultant’s recommendations, and hired The Community Builders (TCB), an experienced nonprofit management firm, to monitor their implementation. In late 1985, at the urging of HUD and MHFA, Urban Edge handed over all property management to TCB, which had already been managing two Urban Edge developments. But Urban Edge was determined to reorganize and eventually resume property management. It did so in 1991, by which time it had 425 units in nine developments. In 1993, Urban Edge again engaged a consultant to review the quality of its property management. The consultant recommended that Urban Edge consolidate all property management operations under a director of property management, to further separate property management functions from the CDC.

Despite Urban Edge’s efforts to improve its property management, in November 1993 MHFA was still dissatisfied with the organization’s progress and required it to contract with another management agent for its MHFA-financed properties. Other lenders and regulators subsequently imposed similar conditions. Urban Edge believes MHFA’s actions were poorly timed, given the progress it had made. But the group devised an arrangement for TCB to serve as management agent “of record,” providing oversight and guidance, while allowing Urban Edge Property Management staff to continue. This arrangement was to last as long as necessary to address the concerns of residents, lenders, and regulators. Included in the agreement are performance criteria that serve two functions: to monitor the quality of Urban Edge Property Management services, and to evaluate Urban Edge Property Management’s capacity to resume full control of its operations.

Urban Edge has estimated the cost of its property management capacity-building effort to be $300,000 over three years. This includes the cost of new staff, consultants, and equipment. The two primary funding sources for these items are management fees and grants. Therefore, property management is a high priority in Urban Edge’s multi-year fundraising campaign commenced in 1994. Urban Edge also plans to become recognized as a Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO), which would make it eligible for HUD technical assistance funds for part of TCB’s services.

High quality, community-based property management is central to Urban Edge’s plans for the next decade. Urban Edge argues that property management is pivotal to its future because the Boston market needs a greater supply of effective management companies for affordable housing, CDCs have the ability to address that need, and a successful property management operation can help support Urban Edge’s community building efforts.

Urban Edge Property Management aspires to be “as good as any of those companies out there,” said property management director Jack Geary. “We don’t want [our relationship with Urban Edge, the CDC] to be, ‘Well, you guys are lousy managers, but you’re family, so we have to protect you.'”

Tenant Selection

Since all Bancroft’s units receive Section 8 subsidies, HUD dictates tenant selection criteria. That means people at risk of becoming homeless are a top priority. But the income level of residents in Bancroft and similar projects is typically slightly higher than that of public housing residents. Geary, who has a background in public housing property management, explained, “Urban Edge has a little more latitude than public housing does to get people out and keep people out if they’re causing problems. …You have to be consistent, you need some quantifiable thing, so we look at ability to pay, arrests, convictions. We could probably do more, but we are dealing with low-income housing.” But, he also commented, “Right now our tenancy is fine.”

More than half of Bancroft residents pre-date Urban Edge ownership, and Bancroft is usually fully occupied. Maintenance supervisor Kadian Mullings said, “It’s a great bunch of people down there. The tenants know the management cares. Things get done, eventually.” He said security is not a big problem, although that was not always the case. “Before, that [management’s responsiveness] was not happening, so tenants didn’t care. When Urban Edge first took over, there was lots of drug dealing, and people were behind in rent. There were four drug evictions in 1986 alone, and there have been 10 altogether.” When the boyfriend of an evicted tenant threatened to shoot Mullings, Urban Edge wanted to reassign him. But, he was determined to stay and make a difference. “My tires were slashed in the same incident, but I don’t want to give them the upper hand,” he said. “Some people might say I’m foolish, but this attitude comes when you’re committed to something and want to see changes.”

Bancroft site manager Margarita DelRosario concurred: “My car window was broken and Urban Edge wanted to provide me with 24-hour security. But you cannot show that you’re afraid. People are fighting back here, they are not moving. Some people have been here 10 to 20 years. The residents genuinely feel a special commitment to Urban Edge, the community, and the building. When I was first assigned to Bancroft I said to myself, ‘Oh God, what did I do?’ But just to see the progress in a short period of time, you’ve got to have a good feeling.” Nodding at Kadian she added, “We feel very attached to Bancroft. ….There are some strong personal relationships. We just want to make them happy.”

John Atlas
John Atlas is president of the National Housing Institute.
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Ellen Shoshkes is an architect and planner based in Hoboken, New Jersey. Ellen is was formerly director of housing research in the Architecture and Building Sciences Group at New Jersey Institute of Technology. She co-authored Saving Affordable Housing for NHI.

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