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Chinatown residents fighting for building ownership

Mass Pike Towers residents fighting Trinity Financial over 200-unit building

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Chinatown residents fighting for building ownership
Mass Pike Towers resident Serene Wong says Trinity Financial is blocking tenants in their efforts to exercise right to purchase the affordable housing development.

Back when Trinity Financial acquired the Mass Pike Towers housing development in 2000, the deal seemed like a win-win, tenants say. The developers secured $16 million in public funds to purchase and renovate the nearly 30-year-old building complex. They promised to keep the units affordable and to give tenants the right to purchase the development after 15 years.

The tenants remembered that option, spelled out in a memorandum of understanding, when things began to go sour in 2003. Trinity proposed a 200-unit luxury tower on the development’s parking lot — a move tenants said would block sunlight, remove valuable parking spaces and add to the glut of luxury units that by then were beginning to encircle Chinatown. The tenants fought and blocked the development plan, at one point picketing in front of Trinity’s Court Street office.

“It would have been very dense,” said Serene Wong, a co-founder of the Mass Pike Towers Tenants Association.

Fast forward to 2016. At a meeting in April, the tenants informed Trinity principal James Keefe of their intention to buy the property.

“He seemed shocked,” Wong said. “He said, ‘Oh, that memorandum of understanding was signed 15 years ago.’”

“He said something like, ‘What? Do you have $40 million?’” recalls Chinese Progressive Association co-director, who also attended the meeting with Keefe. “He was pretty hostile.”

An offer

As it turns out, the tenants were able put to together the sum. Working with the nonprofit Preservation of Affordable Housing, Inc., on September 13 they made an offer of $42 million, a sum a third party representing the residents determined to be the fair market value of the 200-unit development.

Three days later came the hand-delivered response from the New Mass Pike Towers Limited Partnership — the entity Keefe set up on behalf of Trinity — informing them that their offer was “not acceptable.”

Through a spokesperson, Trinity points out that an appraiser appointed by the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development had pegged the fair market value at $61 million — more than ten times the initial $6 million the firm paid for the 1973 building.

“The Option Agreement required that the sale price for the property be at ‘Market Value,’” reads a statement emailed to the Banner from InHouse Public Relations on behalf of Trinity. “For the purposes of establishing what the Market Value of the property was, the rightful owner of the option, the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development, commissioned an appraisal from an experienced and credible appraisal firm. Trinity had no input on the selection of the appraisal firm, no input on the appraisal process, and was not allowed to review and comment on it before it was published and distributed.”

Wong says that regardless of the appraisal, Keefe is not entitled to reap a tenfold profit on a building he acquired with federal, state and city funding.

“He paid for it with public money,” Wong said. “I didn’t think he could make that much profit from the sale.”

Among the funding sources Trinity used to purchase the building were a $10 million loan from the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, $500,000 in funding from the City of Boston, $500,000 from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, $400,000 in HUD funding and a $4.5 million in state low income tax credits.

Public funds

“There’s a clear moral argument that this is not what public subsidy was meant for,” Lowe said “It’s not to enrich developers.”

Trinity’s statement argues that the firm has invested in the property and is committed to maintaining its affordability.

“When we assumed ownership in 2000, the property was in financial distress, in physical disrepair, and in danger of losing its affordability and rental subsidies,” the statement reads. “As a result of Trinity’s ownership, we have voluntarily increased long-term affordability, which will run for another 55 years, made significant capital investments, and have encouraged and financially supported the establishment of a tenants’ association.”

Lowe says that the tenants negotiated for Trinity to pay into the tenants fund as part of the conditions for purchasing the property with public funding and says the real issue is honoring the tenants’ right to purchase the property, which was also part of the negotiations they agreed to in 2000.

“This isn’t about saying that Trinity is a terrible landlord,” she said. “They made an agreement. Why are they trying to weasel out of it and make a profit off of it?”