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Rent aid ending, Fenway tenants fret

Advocates for poor see affordability crisis

The Burbank Apartments in East Fenway have been a source of affordable housing for low-income residents in Boston. The Burbank Apartments in East Fenway have been a source of affordable housing for low-income residents in Boston. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / May 9, 2011

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Richard Webster lives steps away from a Whole Foods Market, the train station, and the hospital, where he goes for checkups.

He is one of a few of East Fenway’s low-income residents who had found a haven at Burbank Apartments, an island of government-subsidized housing in the neighborhood for 40 years.

But in April his landlords ended their rent subsidy agreement with the federal government, dealing Webster and other tenants a blow. Rents have since climbed to $1,150 for a studio to $2,400 for a two-bedroom. And now Webster, disabled and on a fixed income, wonders whether he can continue to stay there.

“I may have to move out,’’ he said.

The end of rent subsidies at the 171 apartments in East Fenway has touched a nerve among tenants over the neighborhood’s affordable housing stock, triggering protests, city intervention, and a lawsuit seeking to keep subsidized units at Burbank. And it is highlighting what some say is an affordable housing crisis playing out across the state as private developers end their federally subsidized mortgages with the government.

“This is a huge problem,’’ said Kathy Brown, a coordinator with the Boston Tenants Coalition. “There is such a shortage of affordable housing. And the thought of losing more units — units that were there just months ago — is very concerning.’’

The Burbank landlords, William and Robert Kargman, said through a spokesman that while they are no longer offering Section 8 housing at the property, they have offered tenants federal “enhanced vouchers’’ so they can continue to stay there or use them elsewhere if they move. Tenants must meet income rules to qualify, and their rents would be government-subsidized.

“Anyone in the building is encouraged to stay,’’ said David Ball, spokesman for the Kargmans, who own First Realty Management Corp.

But Fenway tenants and housing advocates worry about the affordability of the apartments once tenants leave. They contend that as tenants move out, those units will be rented at market rate, far out of reach for the elderly, disabled, or low-income families who had relied on affordability at Burbank.

The Kargman family, the premier developer of affordable housing in the state, was among dozens of private developers who participated in a federal 40-year program that offered low interest rates — 1 percent to 3 percent — in exchange for providing Section 8 and low- and moderate-income housing.

But those deals are expiring. And as a result, Massachusetts could lose 10,000 affordable housing units over the next decade, according to a study released in March by the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation, which tracks the mortgages.

While tenants acknowledge the Kargmans are not legally obligated to continue affordable housing, they argue that the withdrawal from rent subsidy in the Fenway is a violation of the Massachusetts discrimination laws. The move unfairly affects families with children and families of color, as well as the elderly and disabled, the suit added.

But Ball said that the Kargmans have gone “above and beyond’’ to accommodate Burbank renters, and that the brunt of Fenway’s housing burdens should not be placed on one developer.

“The Kargmans have fulfilled the terms of their 40-year agreement with the federal government,’’ said Ball. “They’ve gone out and secured the enhanced vouchers to keep people in the building to continue to stay there. . . . What else is expected from someone who has met those obligations? What more can they possibly do?’’

Fenway residents and city officials say the Kargmans pose a particular challenge, and not just in the Fenway. Of the 1,081 affordable housing units the city has lost in the past five years, 1,069 belong to the Kargmans, said Sheila Dillon, the mayor’s housing adviser.

Ball disputes the city’s figures, saying the Kargmans eliminated 518 rent-subsidized apartments at developments in East Boston and Roslindale. Three other developments have gone market-rate. Burbank Apartments represents nearly 7 percent of Fenway’s affordable housing stock, city officials and advocates for the poor say. They worry that depletions of subsidized units in the neighborhood will ultimately lead to higher-end tenants moving in and lower-income renters being driven to poorer parts of the city.

“If you are poor and/or working class in this area, you are going to be priced out and move further into the city until you are priced out and move out of the city,’’ said City Councilor Michael Ross, who represents the Fenway.

They also contend that the vouchers offer no guarantees to tenants, who could be forced to leave if their income or household changes.

“The Kargman family has had a history of providing affordable housing and that is positive,’’ said Sarah Horsley, an advocate with the Fenway Community Development Corporation, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “But their decisions and choices are having a huge impact on low- and moderate- [income] people in Boston . . . and where they can afford to live.’’

Dillon said the mayor has pressed to keep affordable housing in all of Boston’s neighborhoods. And while the city has worked to preserve such apartments throughout the city, she said it is particularly troubling when affordability is lost in wealthier communities.

“When we lose affordable housing in high-income neighborhood areas, it is very hard to replace those units,’’ said Dillon. “It means our neighborhoods aren’t as rich and diverse as they need to be.’’

In March, the tenants filed for a court injunction to block the Kargmans from ending rent subsidy. They lost their bid for an injunction, but their lawsuit is going forward.

The lawsuit names seven plaintiffs, including En Ci Guan, who makes $8 an hour at a restaurant. Guan pays 30 percent of her income in rent, the suit said, but she fears that with the end of rent subsidy at Burbank she will have to pay more.

Webster, who has a rent voucher, never thought he would have to leave Burbank. In his 25 years there, he’s seen more students move in and more of his disabled friends leave. The neighborhood, he adds, is in high demand.

“I have no problems with the students,’’ Webster said. “But what about the rest of us?’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.

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