Marksdale Gardens, Boston

Limited Equity Cooperative Housing


During the administration of Governor Michael Dukakis the Commonwealth of Massachusetts aggressively promoted affordable housing. With strong political and financial support, the state’s housing community acquired a level of skill and sophistication that continues to evolve in the current environment of reduced funding. Likewise, Boston’s rich network of housing groups and programs received strong support from former Mayor Flynn and remains vital during the current administration of Mayor Menino. In addition, HUD’s Boston-area office has earned a reputation for innovation. As a result, several pilot programs to preserve HUD-assisted housing have taken place in the Boston area and have served as models for broader implementation.[1]

Massachusetts, however, is among the states hardest hit by HUD foreclosures and expiring use contracts, and its at-risk properties are concentrated in Boston. From 1965 to 1980, private developers in Boston built about 14,000 low- and moderate-income housing units with HUD-insured mortgages and subsidies. Residents of these units faced various problems: poor management, property deterioration, financial failure, and eventually HUD foreclosure. According to a 1975 report by HUD’s Boston office, 7,000 Boston-area families faced rent increases or displacement due to foreclosure.

Housing advocates and residents of HUD-owned developments protested these conditions, resulting in new legislation, Section 203 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1978. According to the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), Section 203 required HUD, for the first time, to preserve the developments as low- and moderate-income housing, and to maintain decent living conditions, minimize displacement, and ensure tenant participation. The law also required HUD to confer with tenants to determine whether to sell each project it owned with federal subsidies. For subsidized projects, HUD was automatically to provide Section 8 project-based subsidies in communities that needed low- and moderate-income housing. (Bratt 1989)

To test these new policies, HUD established a Boston-area demonstration as part of a national study of owner-management models for financially failed, subsidized, HUD-held developments. HUD agreed to sell properties to qualified resident organizations and to include residents in the process as much as possible. The CHAPA provided technical assistance to residents during the demonstration’s two-year planning process, helping them to evaluate alternatives, make informed decisions, and prepare for the disposition.

Of the nine HUD property disposition sales to tenant cooperatives nationwide, five originated in the Boston regional office and stemmed from the demonstration. Among these five co-ops – all still in operation today – Marksdale Gardens was formed. Marksdale residents acquired the property as a limited equity co-op in 1984, and have managed it since 1988. Once endangered, Marksdale is now an affordable and desirable place to live.

Many Marksdale residents cite the stability of tenure and social cohesiveness as sources of satisfaction. “I’m second generation here and there are quite a few like me, who have lived here for 20 or more years,” said board member Sandra Jenkins, who explained why, after having moved away, she often drove over an hour to help organize the co-op and later decided to move back. “It felt like taking part in something special, it was something I needed to do. I knew these people my entire life, and I saw it slipping away, people had raised their families and were getting older and didn’t know what was happening, and I felt like I had to do something. Me and my family had as much of a stake as anyone.”

Neighborhood Context

Marksdale is located in Roxbury, one of the Boston area’s most blighted communities. As in many city neighborhoods, the predominantly black and low-income population is relatively recent. Roxbury underwent a series of transformations, as waves of immigrants settled in Boston and then moved out to the suburbs. Some sections of the community are noted for the variety and architectural quality of their homes, including Victorian mansions in park-like settings, pre-war bungalows along tree-lined streets, and blocks of triple-deckers. But, Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar note in their 1994 book, Streets of Hope, “When whites moved out, so did private and public investment in everything from schools and housing to business and street repair, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of disinvestment and decay wrongly blamed on newcomer people of color.”

An urban renewal plan in 1963 resulted in demolition of over half the area’s homes. Marksdale was built on this cleared land, under HUD’s Section 221d(3) program, as housing for families displaced by urban renewal. The program was designed to serve a slightly higher-income population than the public housing program. (Bratt 1989) Marksdale has received praise for its architectural plan, the clustered townhouse style, an alternative to high-density, high-rise public housing design.

Sponsor

St. Marks Congregational Church built Marksdale between 1964 and 1966.[2] The church initially managed the buildings, employing congregation members, many of whom were also Marksdale residents. But by 1978 St. Marks had fallen more than $1 million behind in payments on its HUD-insured mortgage, and HUD assumed control of the property as “mortgagee in possession,” a preliminary to foreclosure. HUD issued a request for proposals for a management company and chose the low bidder. The company then antagonized residents by laying off the previous, well-liked staff. Another management company was brought in, but it too was considered insensitive to residents.

Resident Minnie Clark, who moved to Marksdale with her family in 1964, said she and several other residents began planning to turn the complex into a co-op. But according to Clark, the management company decided it also wanted to own the property and began to undermine the residents’ initiative. That made Clark, who had been involved with the Boston Tenants Association, resolve to fight even harder to save their homes. She and other tenants went door to door, explaining, convincing, and cajoling others to take control and form a co-op. “I kept beating up on them, saying it’s really not that different from paying rent,” she said. “Little by little, people began to envision what we meant.”

Acquisition

By 1980, the Boston-area demonstration had started. Warren Gardens, another project in the demonstration, had already begun the process of forming a co-op, so the timing was right to form a co-op at Marksdale. HUD’s Boston staffer Phil Salamone agreed to help Marksdale residents. His support was crucial, given the management company’s lack of cooperation. Marksdale tenants formed a resident association with an eight-member board, and circulated a petition to document support for the co-op plan.

HUD advised the fledgling resident association that Marksdale’s rents – well below market at approximately $180 for a two-bedroom, $198 for a three-bedroom, and $250 for a four-bedroom apartment – would not cover costs. “HUD said you’ve got to do something right now about rents, so people won’t blame the new resident co-op,” recalled Clark, who became board president. “They recommended a $100 increase right away and another $100 when the buildings were sold.” Moreover, HUD wanted the resident association to have two months’ market rent in place. “So we started collecting the money, slowly, like a Christmas fund, and put it in an escrow account. But not all the residents had the money at that time. The Episcopal City Mission lent us $40,000, and that filled the gap. The people who were behind paid back the money over time, and we soon repaid the loan.”

In February 1984, HUD was ready to deed the property to the resident association. In the meantime, they had faced several challenges, including the management company’s attempts to discourage members from supporting co-op conversion (several developers who were interested in the property came from as far away as California to make promises to residents in exchange for their support), and HUD’s misplacement of paperwork, which forced residents to repeat the work four times before 1984.

After trying for financing from local banks, Marksdale residents finally closed with the National Consumer Cooperative Bank on a 15-year $700,000 loan at 13.5 percent interest. HUD agreed to pay overdue real estate taxes and absorb the amount in arrears from the original mortgage of $2.4 million.

Neighborhood Context: Ten Years Later

Marksdale is situated between two rough neighborhoods. During a week of pleasant spring weather, with trees and flowers in bloom, residents gardening, children playing, and elderly women chatting, it was clear why residents have described Marksdale as “an oasis in the midst of a wasteland.”

Many of the neighborhood troubles that affect Marksdale residents, however, are more subtle than gang and drug activity. As Clark pointed out, “You can’t get a cab here, there’s no nice restaurant, and the shopping is limited. And, other than here, people don’t take care of their yards and street the way they should.”

Marksdale’s 178 two-story townhouses, on both sides of Humboldt Avenue, face interior common areas. The common areas are mainly lawn, landscaped with trees and shrubs. The units are contemporary yet conventionally “homelike,” with wood clapboard, brick facades, pitched roofs, and small front and back yards, some with low white picket fences. All have private entries. A tall wooden fence lines the street side, but the complex is open to the public, and pedestrian paths leading through the courtyard often serve as neighborhood short-cuts. Nevertheless, there is a sense of enclosure and privacy.

While monthly housing costs have increased at Marksdale since the co-op conversion, they remain well within the affordability range of area low-income families. Charges were about $528 for a two-bedroom, $608 for a three-bedroom, and $680 for a four-bedroom unit at the time of this research. In comparison, median contract rent in 1990 was $432 for Roxbury and $564 for the Boston area as a whole, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Moreover, many median-rent apartments in Roxbury are in poor condition, whereas Marksdale units are well-maintained and feature amenities such as oak floors, eat-in kitchens, basements, sliding glass doors, and patios.

The Marksdale complex also includes a two-story commercial building, which houses the co-op offices on the second floor. The co-op has had trouble leasing the ground floor. Several businesses, including a bodega and a video shop, have opened there but have been unsuccessful. Directly across the street from the plaza, however, is a newly renovated city park, and beyond is a newly renovated technical high school. Nearby are several buildings under renovation. Down the street is the Trotter School, one of Boston’s best “magnet” elementary schools. Across the street diagonally is St. Mark’s Church, which serves as a de facto community center and the site of co-op membership meetings. Despite frequent vacancies, the commercial plaza has the potential to serve the purpose for which it was designed: to be a focal point or a miniature town center in the community.

Security

Marksdale employs no formal security measures. Although a crime watch formed by residents several years ago has petered out, informal surveillance seems to help reduce crime. According to Clark, “The board used to in the evening walk the grounds to see what security [was] needed. We were just another set of eyes to report problems. We send out a notice if there is a suspicious character, or events. …[Residents] call and say ‘Be on the look-out, there’s someone around.'”

One resident concurred that self-policing is an effective deterrent of neighborhood crime. “We try to keep it all [crime and drugs] out of here. ….You keep your eyes open. They’re going to come in here anyway. It would be nice for Marksdale to hire security. There are security guards on a project up the hill on Humboldt, none down here. But the crime that way is more than down here. Could it be that…we don’t tolerate it down here, so that’s why we don’t have that heavy traffic of people?”

Yet the level of danger in the neighborhood can also be a matter of perception, Clark pointed out. “This neighborhood is not plagued by violence. It’s relatively safe. People watch TV, so there’s a perception of major crime going on, but it’s just not true.”

Governance

Marksdale’s nine-member board meets monthly to oversee management decisions. The co-op holds elections annually, and members serve rotating three-year terms. Although a nominating committee looks for potential members, and residents can nominate from the floor during elections, current members are usually re-elected. Six have served since the co-op’s beginning. Four original members, however, are now of retirement age. One member commented, “Every year we try to recruit new board members, but unfortunately, if you get two or three people who will do work, nobody else will take up the banner.”

Yet Marksdale appears to have benefited from continuity of board membership. As member Sandra Jenkins said, “We know each other really well and respect each other. There’s no need to push your point because Suzy over there is going to take over the floor. It’s a very comfortable situation, and that’s a big part of why we work so well together.”

The way an organization functions is usually a reflection of the person at the top. Clark is a very calm person, one resident said, and her demeanor rubs off on other people. “She will sit and listen and then tell you what she wants.” Eric Segal, director of the Boston-based Association for Resident Controlled Housing (ARCH) offered a similar description of Marksdale’s top-down management: “Plato said, the best government is a benevolent dictatorship. Minnie is like that. She rules with an iron hand. She’s very smart, doesn’t let anything get out of her control, doesn’t take anything for granted.”

Clark’s contributions evoke impassioned tributes from neighbors and co-workers. “She’s virtually fearless,” Jenkins said. “You don’t say to her ‘you can’t do this’ – that’s what people said to them [the resident organizers]. Especially because they were all ‘girls’ – and girls with no experience.” Jenkins continued, “She’s really committed, and not just to Marksdale, but to the community. …She’s more than the president of the board, she ends up being the friend, the surrogate mother, the person that helps fix problems.”

Property Management

For Marksdale’s first four years as a co-op, HUD and the National Cooperative Bank required it to be managed by independent management companies. But, largely due to Clark’s property management background, HUD agreed to let the board manage the property itself, which it began doing in 1988.

Clark works part-time, serving as administrative property manager. Marksdale also retained the previous managing agent’s six-person staff. Many staff members are dedicated to the co-op’s mission; they see their work as more than a job.

The most frequent complaints the staff hears are over parking, loud music, and rule enforcement, which seems inevitable, with so many elderly people living with children who have limited play area. Yet as one board member observed, “We try to enforce rules so that children won’t be destructive. There are some rules that I would like to enforce better, but there is always that give and take. You can’t just enforce rules – you have to walk gingerly around some situations.”

Maintenance of common areas is also an issue. Assistant site manager Pam Carter explained, “We encourage tenants to do a nice job with the yards and grounds. But one tenant is taking care of the common area next to his house, claiming it as his own and not allowing the kids to play in it. It really looks nice, but he cannot claim it.”

As with security, self-policing seems to work well with grounds maintenance. “Call me the guard,” one resident commented. “If I see anyone doing something wrong, I correct them. I’m very conscious about how the yards look, even in the winter.” Resident Isaiah George said, “If you see a person working in their yard on a nice day, you’ll see other people getting out there. That’s one of the things you need for a co-op to work.”

Marksdale encourages self-help, as a way to save money and develop a spirit of cooperation. Residents are encouraged to do as much as possible, said Clark, such as cutting their own grass, or conserving water. “When we started out,” Clark explained, “water and sewer charges were about $28,000 a year; now they are $112,000. The charges have increased but not water usage. We also encourage people to upgrade their interiors,” Clark added. “We provide the labor if they supply the materials. And if they can’t afford the materials, we’ll pay and add the cost to the monthly carrying charges. We’ll go ahead and do it for the elderly who can’t afford it, just because we think it’s needed.”

Project-based Section 8 certificates have helped Marksdale maintain affordability. About half the residents, mostly elderly, were receiving Section 8 subsidy. In hindsight, Clark wishes she had accepted increases in the Section 8 contract when HUD offered them. “Now I advise groups, ‘Don’t take a small amount for operating subsidy,'” she said. “When people move out, we have to upgrade the unit to current market standards. It costs about $11,000 to $18,000 per unit vacancy turnover. But it’s important to create a nice environment. You can always get good people if you have something good to offer.”

Tenant Selection

Marksdale’s vacancies are filled from a waiting list (which does not identify who is eligible for subsidy). The rigorous tenant selection process involves a credit check, landlord references, a home visit, and at least one interview with the family, which Clark conducts in the co-op office.

“We sit down with the whole family, get to know them, their lifestyle – if they leave their children unattended after school,” Clark explained. Potential residents receive a handbook that tells of Marksdale’s history, describes the co-op concept, explains the rules, and includes a copy of the lease. “We try to find out whether they are willing to compromise and be part of the community,” Clark said. “We tell them that this is a democratic environment and we want them to participate as much as they can. We say, ‘Look around. See what this place offers. And we have these expectations of you. If you can’t live with what we have, you should look for other housing.'”

Isaiah George, who was turned down when he was a single father but admitted after he married, approves of the strict policies. “They uphold family value systems. If you put a bunch of people who aren’t motivated together, you are going to have a problem.”

Resident Profile

More than half of Marksdale’s residents have lived there since its inception in the mid-1960s. About one-quarter are now senior citizens, which may in part explain why turnover was relatively low until recently. Out of only 60 vacancies in 10 years, deaths accounted for one-third of the turnover. (Neidhardt 1993)

At the time of this research, the average age of all residents was 34 years, while the average age of heads of households was 57. Twenty percent of the residents were over 62. The average family size was 2.2 members, and 43 percent were single-person households. Only about 20 percent of the households were headed by males. Fifty-one percent received social security or pensions, and 7 percent received welfare. The average adjusted income of residents was $12,173, compared to Roxbury’s average household income of $26,963.

Marksdale’s population is almost entirely African American. “When Marksdale was built it was integrated, and not a little, a lot,” asserts Clark. “Then there started to be a lot of negative publicity about Roxbury, so whites wouldn’t come in. At first we tried to set aside five units for majority families, and not all in the same clusters. We held out as long as we could, but couldn’t keep them vacant too long. It didn’t work.”

Resident Participation

“Resident participation is not at a level we had hoped for,” Clark admitted. “Maybe we haven’t banged on people’s doors to get that participation.” In an attempt to reach out to residents, co-op staff circulate a newsletter and notices of upcoming votes. But most communications are informal, made when residents call or visit the office. Another conduit of co-op news is “the grapevine,” or, as one resident put it, “the elderly ladies who are out on the bench all day.”

The co-op previously held more group activities. While a few social traditions survive, such as an annual shareholders’ dinner, Clark said, “…some [residents] have gotten so un-participatory that a bunch of work falls on just a few.” This holds true at annual membership meetings. Assistant site manager Pam Carter noted, “You get the same crowd …about 30 to 40 people. It’s never what you want, but you take what you can get.”

Training and Technical Assistance

The co-op has also benefited over the years from its ongoing relationship with Michael Gondek, executive director of the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation (CEDAC).[3] Marksdale first retained Gondek as development consultant when the co-op began self-management in 1988. Since then, he has met with the board president weekly, to review the budget, potential funding, tax matters, strategic planning, and money-saving ideas. Gondek also chairs Marksdale’s annual membership meetings.

Also, at the time of co-op conversion, board members participated in 16 training sessions as part of the 1980 HUD demonstration.[4] Since then, the board has periodically hired outside consultants to conduct training sessions for both new and old residents.

Additional assistance comes from the Association for Resident Controlled Housing (ARCH), a national network of co-ops, of which Clark is a member. ARCH provides yearly training (basically brainstorming sessions) for co-op boards of directors. And an informal association of the six developments that participated in the HUD demonstration led to the formation of Residents to Residents, an organization of experienced co-op leaders who advise and support the current generation of “groups undergoing the arduous and frustrating process of trying to buy their complexes from HUD.” (Boston Globe 1993) As a participant in the process of housing preservation in Boston, Marksdale benefits from the contacts and access to resources that typically result from such networking.

John Atlas
John Atlas is a found of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.
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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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