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Something really amiss is going on over at the Coalition for a Better Acre, this time, in regards to recent eviction notices delivered to some tenants that have seem to suggest some are in arrears going back to 2004, whereas many of those tenants have had no previous notice of such. CBA Members for Justice is hosting a rally today at 5pm to ask for a halt to the eviction process until the issue of fairness can be resolved. The press release from CBAMJ has more:
Outraged Lowell residents and CBA Members for Justice will rally on December 18 against threatened evictions of at least 80 low-income households from properties developed or owned by the Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA). The rally will start at 5:00 and take place outside the meeting of the North Canal Housing Trust, 517 Moody Street in Lowell.
“Dozens of North Canal tenants have been coming through my office day after day with these warning letters” explains Paulette Turner, Consultant to the North Canal Tenant Council and former staff of CBA’s property management company Maloney Properties. “In some cases this is the first notice they’re receiving of money they’ve supposedly owed since 2004. Then they get sent to court to sign an agreement they might not understand and can’t afford, and once they break that agreement, they’re out on the street.”
This flood of warning notices extends beyond the CBA-developed North Canal complex, to other CBA properties on Merrimack Street and the Acre Triangle. In some cases the notices are just wrong, like one demanding $1350 from a North Canal resident - when the woman sat down with Turner to review her records, it turned out that she was actually owed a $40 credit instead. In other cases, the debt may exist, but tenants have received no prior warnings, counseling, or education about options for addressing the problem and staying in their homes.
In response to the crisis, the North Canal Tenant Council has hosted two educational meetings where tenants raised other issues. For example, constables were taping notices to the outside of people’s doors, where they are accessible to passersby. They talked about suddenly receiving first-time notification for money they have supposedly owed for years, which then turns out to be an error. Maria Claudio, a long-time North Canal resident, says “This whole process is illegal and not in compliance with HUD regulations. I have been personally affected by the situation.”
“It’s distressing that CBA, an organization that formed to fight for justice and housing for the poor of Lowell, is now acting as a landlord that will evict people with no due process,” adds Darcie Boyer, Acre resident and former CBA organizer. “We’re seeing CBA’s dramatic change from social justice organization to one led by the interests of bankers and developers.”
The rally will demand an immediate halt to the eviction process. “CBA needs to require its property manager to sit down with the tenants and design a new process that is fair and clear to all,” adds Turner. The North Canal Housing Trust, a joint body of the North Canal Tenants Council and the CBA Board of Directors, sets policy for North Canal Apartments.
As previously mentioned in comments, there are fishy things going on behind the scenes since before the Coalition for a Better Acre’s recent annual meeting, and I’ve been talking to people to try and find out some sort of coherent storyline.
First and foremost was my personal experience. That meeting and the voting was packed - perhaps three times or more the numbers from previous annual meetings. There were voting booths and marks on the hand (as if they expected cheating). It was quite insane and unexpected, given that I’ve been to these meetings before.
More importantly, besides seeing many of the same people I am familiar with who’ve cared a great deal about the CBA over the years, I saw scores of new faces, people whom had, so far as I could tell, no ties to the CBA. I wondered who they were, and why they would care about this annual meeting and board election. I believe I have an answer of sorts.
It would seem that members of St. Patrick’s church were there in numbers at the CBA annual meeting. As many of those people are Acre residents, they have every right, of course, as does any resident or worker of Lowell. But my first thought was, what would get people who are unfamiliar with the CBA (indeed, many indicated no knowledge at all about the CBA) out to vote for a slate of board members for said organization, standing in line for hours on a late Saturday afternoon? What could they possibly feel was so important? That bugged me, until the reports trickled in to me.
It appears that many church members were falsely under the impression that if they did not show up to vote “appropriately” (ie for the slate of board members supported by the Director), that their own church was somehow in jeopardy. Indeed, I am given to understand that letters went out from the pastor, and “house meetings” were held with the church’s Sisters, to give this information out. If the leadership at St. Patrick’s did actually mislead their membership into believing that the CBA board vote had anything to do with the church’s own funding, that is a grave abuse of church resources, authority, and of the very decency with which we all hope that a church is conducted. What is more, I am told that the church put up much of the funding for the “campaign” for the pro-director slate of board candidates. If I were the Church, or its membership, I would be questioning the appropriateness of conducting what was essentially a political campaign with Church funds.
This would, of course, explain the large turnout of unassociated church members. If I were told that my church might close pending a vote one way or another, I would certainly give up a few hours of my life to ensure that would not happen. To be deceived on this level I can’t even imagine. Democracy is not best served with divisive and dishonest tactics such as these, and though the turnout for the annual meeting was the largest ever, I do not believe that the vote was either fair nor representative.
That isn’t the end of this saga, however. The vote that day, with church members and city and bank employees showing up to outnumber community members (of which there were an astounding number as well), was never tallied publically (ie as far as I know, they never published the results). Why wouldn’t they? Perhaps to keep the “other side” in the dark as to how high their own vote count actually was, or how close the election was.
But things have gone downhill from there. It appears that the CBA Board meeting, scheduled for this evening, has been closed to the public. This is completely unusual, because all board meetings until this point have been open. It is part of the bylaws of the organization (unless they have secretly changed these somehow, which isn’t a good thing). It makes me wonder: if the powers that be are not afraid of what they did, why close the meeting?
On top of this, there have been other violations of the makeup of the board:
The President of the North Canal Tenants Council is afforded a seat on the board. That individual has been very ill over the past year, and according to the bylaws she has a right to designate someone in her stead. We have been told that person will not be allowed into the meeting tonight.
One of the Committees of the CBA, the Acre Neighborhood Committee (ANC), has the right to vote two of its members onto the new board. That committee typically had had around 25 members at any give time. The ANC had been inactive for the past year due to the C.A.S.A. affordable housing campaign, which shared many of the ANC’s goals, making the Committee’s actions a bit redundant. At the last Board meeting, it was stated that the ANC was no longer meeting, but since then, two people have “appointed” themselves as the new board members out of the blue. They claim to have announced that meeting where this happened in the newspaper (where, of course, barely anyone would see it). Previously, the ANC announced its meetings with postcards to its members and other ways to ensure as many members as possible would attend.
Members of the CBA who were active ANC members before it stopped meeting met recently, with the goal of truly electing (via Robert’s Rules of order, ballots, etc) their two representatives to the Board. That meeting had 22 members present. The two elected by the real members of the committee will be attending tonight’s “closed” board meeting, where it is expected they will be turned away and thrown out, as will the Tenant’s Council’s appointed representative. I will of course be updated.
Again, there may be some sort of argument for a transition of the CBA’s longstanding culture of organizing the city’s most vulnerable residents. However, I have never seen it argued; and what’s more, neither have the hardworking people who have been members of the CBA and its heart for many years. They have constantly felt shut out of this process since long before CBA employees were fired. That is at the very least a total failure of leadership. The residents who are upset are all very dedicated and would have loved nothing more than to feel that the CBA still belonged to its membership.
Between the alleged trickery by a respected leader of a congregation and the shutout tactics which violate not only the spirit in which the CBA was founded, but its very bylaws, I can only come to the conclusion that there is no good argument for the actions which have been taken by the director. It has been a sad turn of events which has made community activists enemies with the organization which once embraced them, and I for one am weary of seeing local organizations destroyed by leadership which fails to convince people of the veracity of their actions, and instead uses dirty tactics and violations of trust to achieve victory.
Is the CBA lost? Has the city and the business community decided to side with the more corporate top-down structure that the CBA has become? I don’t know. I hope that people will give the disenfranchised and less powerful community a chance to come to the table, but I am not holding my breath.
More to come as I encounter it…
Two weeks ago, the City announced that Trinity Financial of Boston, MA has been chosen as the Master Developer for the http://www.hamiltoncanal.com/ Hamilton Canal District. The City web site has extensive information and if you want additional details, please check it out.
There is also a neat interactive map for those of you who want a quick review.
The Hamilton Canal District will reinvent 15 acres of vacant and underutilized land as a new vibrant mixed-use neighborhood connecting Lowell’s downtown to its Commuter Rail station. The project is an innovative public-private partnership between the City of Lowell and Trinity Financial. The $500 million, 2 million square foot project will include a substantial commercial component, 500-1000 new housing units, a new Judicial Center housing the Lowell Trial Courts, and potentially the new U. Mass/Lowell Nanotechnology Center.
Tomorrow on Thinking Out Loud (10am, 91.5FM, stream it here live), in continuence with our month of “housing crisis” discussions, we’ll be talking to Community Teamwork, Inc’s Ed Cameron, Associate Executive Director of the Division of Housing and Homeless Services.
Ed will talk about CTI’s efforts to combat homelessness, and also the City of Lowell’s new 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness (kickoff will be on Monday, Jan 29, 9:30am - 12:00 at the conference room at the Wannalancit Mills, 600 Suffolk St). It should be a very informative show, so tune in!
I haven’t had as much time to promote this month’s Thinking Out Loud, and I meant to - my Friday show will be featuring people talking about affordable housing and the many issues all throughout January, and possibly spilling over into the days I don’t host, including in the other languages in TOL’s daily second hour.
Tomorrow should really prove informative for everyone - we will having Ed Sanchez, Home Ownership Programs Director for the Coalition for a Better Acre on the show. The program’s aim is to guide and advise future and current home owners - whether poor or middle class, knowledgeable about housing purchase or not - into making an informed choice, and to see their way into home ownership without the pressures of a sales pitch. I am certainly looking forward to speaking with him. Promoting more home ownership (while fighting preditory lending) among those that traditionally do not buy homes is one really innovative, important way to deal with the affordable housing crisis.
You can stream the show live here.
After the show, I’m going to be really busy all day, so you can also use this as an open thread.
This weekend is the Coalition for a Better Acre’s annual meeting, which I highly recommend anyone interested in fairness in Lowell’s housing should attend! It will be at the Stoklosa Middle School, 560 Broadway Street, Saturday October 21, from 5:00 - 8:00PM
For those who don’t know the CBA, they are a resident’s group which focuses on the Acre (the “inner city” part of Lowell) though they expand their advocacy as much as they can to the whole city. But not only are they advocates, but true to their cause. They actually own affordable housing in the city, and they do more than that - they work to give their residents a stake in their communuities through organizing and neighborhood groups. They help lower-income residents buy their own property as well through a mortgage program. I don’t think people realize the real impact the CBA has in our city.
For those of you who have been down on the CBA in the past, I hope you would make the effort to go to this meeting and see what they are really about. Meet its volunteers. You can’t really say you understand the housing issue in Lowell until you at least entertain their point of view as well. This is the perfect opportunity to do that.
[Edit: this is also an opportunity to meet incoming Executive Director Emily Weitzman Rosenbaum, and say goodbye to Laura Buxbaum, who is leaving. There are also auctions, music, food, and more! RSVP at (978) 452-7523 Ext 800]
If you rent an apartment in Massachusetts, you are about to be screwed — thanks to a stealth, one-sentence piece of legislation. The bill was engrossed in the House on Monday, which means it was adopted without debate or a vote. It now heads to the state Senate.
If the bill goes through, landlords will use computerized energy-monitoring systems to determine what percentage of heat or air-conditioning resources an apartment uses. Landlords will then bill tenants accordingly. Passage of the bill may result in new energy fees based on undisclosed formulas, which the landlords would not need to explain or justify.
Though the bill was virtually ignored by most interest groups, one entity extensively lobbied in favor of it. That company, San Diego–based Ista North America, sells — would you believe it? — computerized energy-monitoring systems. According to state records, Ista paid local lobbying powerhouse Suffolk Group $42,000 to lobby for the bill last year. (This year’s lobbying figures are not yet available.)
In the house, the bill was sponsored and spearheaded by Democrat Thomas A. Golden Jr. of Lowell, who earns more than $100,000 a year selling property with United Estates Realty, in Lowell, and owns rental property of his own. Golden got more than half of his campaign contributions from political-action committees and lobbyists last year — including three Suffolk Group lobbyists — and more from individual realtors and property owners. Multiple calls to Golden’s office were not returned.
State Senator Steven C. Panagiotakis, also of Lowell, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. He owns two rental properties in Dracut.
In theory, properly allocated utility costs could prompt frugality and save resources. With that in mind, the state passed a lengthy, complex law two years ago allowing landlords to bill tenants for water usage.
Unlike that law, however, the proposed energy bill does not provide assurances to tenants or protect against eviction if one fails to pay the new fee. As a result, groups like MassPIRG and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute have opposed it. “It is ill-motivated, poorly conceived, and poorly written,” says Charlie Harak, of the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
The bill would not require landlords to explain how “cost allocation” is determined. By time? Temperature? Coin toss? According to the company’s Web site, Ista’s products use a Resident Utility Billing Service (RUBS) formula, “which bases consumption on variables like square footage or number of occupants.”
And most important of all, the bill does not establish state oversight or regulation of the energy-monitoring systems. As a result, tenants would have no way of discovering whether they’re being overcharged by landlords, and no recourse if that turns out to be the case.
I do not know if this new system for charging tenents for utilities is fair or not, but if it’s something put into a bill by the efforts of the very company that sells the monitoring systems, I’m sorry, but that sounds sleezy. And I know MassPIRG from other campaigns they’ve done, they do good work.
So why would Golden and Panagiotakos support or sponsor this bill? Maybe it has nothing to do with lobbying dollars, but as landlords themselves they feel it’s fair to charge tenents for city utilities. And it probably is. But this article raises some really essential questions - why wasn’t some sort of protection put into place for tenents? How will they be able to appeal an unfair landlord’s fees? And why does a bill get passed which appears authored by a company selling the very technology which would be used, without debate or consideration?
Call Senator Panagiotakos today and tell him to withdraw support of this bill until 1) the issue of fairness for tenents is addressed and 2) it can be explained how this will benefit the citizens of Massachusetts and not just some company out of California with a lot of money to throw around. (617) 722-1630 or you can find more info here.
People from outside our senate district, find your Senator’s information here.
With all the shakeups in Lowell city government in the last couple of months, there is an opportunity to shift the debate about the direction of the city. We have a chance to make a real difference in the lives of our residents, and it’s about damn time, too. If we want sustainable growth, the retention of our heritage and culture, the incorporation of new blood, and a solid base of private enterprise, we can’t expect that to happen with an economic plan of “develop everything into condos!” and new overpriced parking garages.
It’s time to start talking again about affordable housing in this city. A city official once said to me, “Why should Lowell have any more affordable housing? We’re at 14% here, more than the recommended 10% minimum the state says we should have. Let Chelmsford or Westford do their share for once.” I will tell you why this attitude is both suicide for this city’s vibrant culture, and patently false and even immoral. And bad for business.
To jump into an anecdote, last night I attended a group meeting with Western Ave Studio’s building owner, Karl. At issue is the long-term plans for the artist community here. I won’t go into specifics, as they are being worked out, but Karl believes in the project very much. His plans include contingencies for keeping the space affordable “indefinitely” as he says. When I say Western Ave is affordable, I mean, really affordable. Artists from Somerville and points much further are renting studios here. When you ask them why, they say it’s because studio space around Boston is so much more expensive and out of their range.
Long-term affordablity was not taken into account in some of the artist live-work spaces in downtown Lowell. There were no stipulations to protect the affordability of Ayer Lofts. As a result, many artists sold their spaces when the real estate went up (I would have too, if I’d had that much appreciation and it was legal for me to do so) and their property taxes went through the roof. At last year’s Lowell Open Studios, there were hardly any artists left downtown to open their doors in the live-work spaces originally created for them.
Why is this important? Because this is the flip side of gentrification. When a gentrification process is successful and the neighborhood improved, the very people who were relied upon to increase the values no longer can afford to live there. It’s already happening to downtown Lowell and it will happen elsewhere.
I take a look at house prices in my neighborhood in the Highlands, where we rent a small apartment. I’d like to buy a house here here. I’d love to buy one of the many houses on sale in my area, but my god, I doubt we can afford it. Now, my husband and I would never qualify for any sort of government assistance, nor should we. We have a decent family salary even if we still struggle with the cost of living in Massachusetts. But if we’re unable to move ahead, where does that put a family making half or a quarter of our salary, with one or two kids? Or where does that put my friend, an entry-level teacher, and her boyfriend, an artist? They hoofed it right the hell out of the state because they couldn’t afford to stay. Ergo, population loss in Massachusetts.
Follow me past the fold to continue this conversation. (more…)
It was disappointing, to say the least, to read that the Julian Steele project latest developer may no longer be interested. In a few months, it will be 3 years since the City of Lowell tore down the low-income housing complex located on Gorham Street near the Chelmsford town line. As we know, the plan is to build a mix of market value and affordable housing.
Every time I drive by the empty fenced-in lot, I remember the emotionally-charged debates that took place throughout the city, especially during public hearings in the City Council chambers, prior to the vote to tear down the existing structures.
Promises were made to housing advocates during those heated public discussions. Those promises must be kept. If not, then it is time for those heated debates to begin again.
I would like to write a little more about the debate started in this post on the bridge proposal which turned into a discussion about the Coalition for a Better Acre. I’d like to clarify a few points, respond to some of the things in comments, and open it up to all of you as well.
First, I would like to talk about the city, access to the halls of the decision makers, and the CBA.
The misconception is that the CBA shut itself out with its confrontational methods (if you call rallies and resident meetings confrontational). The big debate was over the commentary on the CBA website citing the CBA action in Boston at the Mills to Martinis marketing event (trying to entice rich Boston people to move to Lowell’s high-priced developments), which then led to the comment from a city official that this action “would hurt the CBA.”
Look, the CBA did try to play the game. Back a couple years ago, when there was a pile of contaminated dirt on the site of the future Stoklosa School, they asked the city politely to get the company to live up to its promise to cover it before contaminated dirt blew around the neighborhood. When no action was taken, they held a rally, and showed up en masse to a city council meeting. Guess what? It was the second action that actually produced results.
When the bridge proposal was announced in the paper (touted as a done deal, even though we’ve found out since that it isn’t) the CBA had meetings. They called city councilors. Most of them didn’t know any more than the CBA did about this proposal. Gee. Wonder why not? Because there was never an official conversation and vote in the Council on it? (I think Cox got his “impression” that the city council “wanted” the proposal from only a handful of the councilors, like…say…Armand Mercier and Bud Caulfield?) They asked for meetings with the city to discuss the lack of public input into the proposal. They formed the Upper Merrimack Street Planning Process.
Yes, the city did send a couple assistant city planners to that meeting. They gave the CBA big nifty aerial photos of the region. The participation at those meetings was a sight to see. However, the discussions were centered around issues like putting in an extra stop sign, or better signage, or airing concerns about safety at an intersection. The city wasn’t interested in hearing public opinion on the central proposal that started the debate in the first place - the University Ave bridge. Or about other issues like incorporating affordable housing into the development plan, or fulfilling their promise of 100% affordable housing replacement for all the public housing units destroyed at Julian Steele!
Great, some access. A stop sign there, a crosswalk here. That doesn’t get to the core of CBA’s mission.
So they came up with an action of interrupting Cox’s little marketing campaign to the rich Bostonites (which by the way, the city spends a lot of taxpayer money on). The bright-green-shirted CBA contingent of about 30 was not confrontational; on the contrary, the invited attendees seemed interested in what the CBA members had to say. I’ve been told by CBA volunteers they had some great conversations with these potential new Lowell residents. They seemed to like the idea of an active citizen community (after all, a lot of young professionals are also sympathetic to those causes, and to the central “attraction” of Lowell - the artist community.)
However, the city manager or his staff decided that being civicly embarrassed was too much for them. From my point of view, it didn’t have to be that way, if only the city would, say, have meeting with Acre and other residents on the big issues of development in this city. But a lot of people know that this does not happen. The Planning and Zoning boards are not run for the people, they are run for the connected developers. So. To put this issue to bed in my opinion, the CBA never had real access, and wasn’t going to get it by playing by Cox’s rules, because the fix was in a long time ago. As a result, they agitate and organize and the Sun loves to give the impression (because they’re the Sun and their reporting leaves a lot to be desired most of the time) that the CBA is in leadership disarray and made their own bed and should lie in it. I don’t know about most of you, but I never take the Sun, or Cox and his administration, at their word. The Sun doesn’t like to dig for real answers (like most lazy corporate media) and Cox has his own agenda. As we saw last Tuesday when he proposed spending $50K without much discussion. Thank god the City Councilors woke up to the fact that he was trying to sneak in proposed spending on a project before a democratic decision making process could begin. And don’t think for a minute that was an accident on Cox’s part.
Next, I would like to say, I have never in all the time I’ve volunteered or talked to CBA members, heard that they are against high-end development. Let’s get that straight. What they want is for the city to plan its development in a fair manner that includes its more vulnerable residents as well as its upper-class. Sheer gentrification is just plain dumb. Sorry, but it is. Smart city planning not only helps the vulnerable residents stay in the city, but it’s better long-term because plain market-driven gentrification has a failing record in many communities once no one but the rich can afford to live, work, or shop there. Do we want the city of Lowell to lose all the things that make it great to live in? Like being a first stop on the path of many waves of immigrants? Or being affordable enough to have an amazing culture of artists, musicians, theatre and other events? Didn’t think so.
The CBA has had a summit and many meetings where they’re talking about innovative ways to accommodate this fairness; ideas like
exclusionary (edit: oops, INCLUSIONARY not exclusionary) zoning and affordable development of abandoned properties. The CBA knows more about civic engagement than most of the city’s elected officials. That’s something the councilors and the city administration should be co-opting and incorporating rather than fighting. But City Manager John Cox does not to my experience know how to give access. He would prefer to fight (and lie about it afterwards, as evidenced at the last city council meeting) than to provide a conduit for a working relationship with people who disagree with him. I know there are city councilors who themselves are out there in the community, being involved, who must in their heart of hearts know this. I am pleased that last week they showed they do not want Cox to determine the direction of the city by himself (”I got the impression the council was for this” - yeah, right.)
Some good things were planned last decade for the city. We’re seeing good results from those years, and some bad results. The CBA wants to turn those bad results around and make them good. I think we can all agree that the current city development plan is not perfect, has flaws, and needs work. I don’t trust the developers and the connected to make all those decisions for the good of all city residents. Simply going after the money doesn’t fly (trickle-down economics is a myth, people). But, the city can work with those who want to make money, and those who want to ensure that the powerless have a voice, and create innovative solutions to produce a result where no one loses. This isn’t rocket science. It’s just good sense.
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