Responding to tenants’ concerns, the Boston City Council’s Committee on
Housing held a public hearing last Thursday about Northeastern
University’s recent purchase of St. Botolph Terrace, a complex of
affordable housing apartment units subsidized by the U.S. Department of
Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson joined City Councilors Chuck Turner, Sam
Yoon and Michael Ross at the Susan Bailis Assisted Living Center in the
South End to listen to testimony from St. Botolph residents, as well as
representatives from Northeastern University and the Massachusetts
Alliance of HUD Tenants (MAHT).
Despite the Council’s official invitation, John Palmieri, the new
director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), did not attend
the hearing, though a BRA staff member came to listen to the concerns
in his place.
“We struggle hard for affordable family housing. It’s a precious
commodity,” said Turner. “We are very concerned when the Boston
Redevelopment Authority makes commitments to officials and to tenants
in terms of their commitments to preserve a specific piece of
affordable housing, and then, from our perspective, throws them away
without any dialogue.”
Turner and the tenants testified that former BRA Director Mark Maloney
stated at a City Council hearing on April 18, 2006 that the BRA would
consult the tenants about the apartments’ long-term affordability in
the event of a sale. Palmieri last month succeeded Paul McCann, who had
served as the authority’s interim director since Maloney stepped down
The BRA approved Northeastern’s application to buy St. Botolph Terrace on July 19. The sale was completed on Nov. 15.
Ross said that the BRA made a commitment to protect affordable
homeownership in the city, and said he is “disappointed” at the
authority’s “removing a safety net for the residents.”
The authority objects to that characterization, and says it is only doing its work.
“We don’t have the right to reject a potential buyer,” said BRA
spokesperson Jessica Shumaker in a telephone interview.
Shumaker said that the purchase of the 52-unit complex at 351-367
Massachusetts Avenue by Northeastern allows the BRA greater control
over the property and further protects the tenants and the affordable
housing units. She said she was not aware whether or not the BRA
notified St. Botolph’s tenants of the approval of the complex’s sale in
“The most important thing for people to understand is that the tenants
will be protected through 2023 and beyond,” she said.
However, the new contract allows Northeastern to convert the apartments
to market-rate houses, dormitories or condominiums in 2023, when the
current HUD subsidy contracts expire, according to MAHT Director
Even worse, Kane said, Northeastern can walk away from its obligation
to keep the complex as affordable housing any time if a threatened cut
in federal funding is realized.
At the hearing, Turner echoed fears voiced by a handful of St. Botolph
tenants during a recent rally that the university will raise rents or
convert the complex’s 52 units to dormitories.
“Northeastern is not in the business of managing family housing,” said
Turner. “It raises a concern that an institution that isn’t in the
business of managing and renting family housing buys a family housing
Wilkerson said that for the last few years, schools have aggressively
expanded and challenged “the existence of low-income, mostly minority
residential community” in Boston.
“Nobody believes that they are paying $2,000 for living in Roxbury …
because we are in competition with the students and that’s what they
pay,” said Wilkerson.
Jeffrey Doggett, director of government relations for Northeastern
University, said that the university would keep the building as public
housing until 2023, and would not make the final decision on its future
use without talking to tenants.
On other issues, like potential financial shortfalls in HUD subsidies,
Doggett said the university has yet to take a position.
“There is no agreement, there is no plan, there is no idea that we can
come up with in the first two weeks of the university owning this
property,” he said. “I don’t feel that it’s necessary to make
guarantees today about what would happen if HUD cuts funding [or] what
would happen in 2023.”
St. Botolph tenants Rosalind Dawson and Mercedes Rodriguez see things differently.
“We don’t want our babies to go through hell in 2023, which is just
down the road,” said Dawson, who has lived in the complex for over 20
years. “It’s not that far away. These kids grow up so fast.”
Rodriguez, 22, holding her one-year-old son in her arms, said she just wanted to be free from the concerns.
“I am stressed out emotionally and physically. Every time I come home,
I get letters and I get stuff on my door,” she said, her eyes welling
The councilors agreed with the tenants’ calls for resolution.
“I don’t think that letting this situation continue without any
guarantees beyond 2023 is a healthy situation for the community,” said
Turner urged Northeastern President Joseph Aoun to sign a written
agreement to keep the building affordable through at least 2023. While
the university has consistently said it will do so, the councilor noted
that today’s verbal statements might not hold Northeastern accountable
16 years from now — epecially considering the BRA’s failure to keep a
promise made just last year.
“Paper and pen speak louder than verbal conversation, and hang around
longer,” said St. Botolph tenant Christopher Roberson, who is a court
official. “A verbal talk is not going to stand up in court. We need to
have it in writing.
“Colleges are buying up everything. It’s got to be ceased because if
this continues the next 20 years, the homeless rate is going to be so
astronomically high,” he added. “Who can afford to live here anymore?”