ONLY A FEW months ago. Harvard administrators were smiling broadly at what they called a public relations success for the University
A militant group of tenants in Harvard's 60-unit Craigie Arms apartment complex had agreed to drop a multi-million dollar suit against the University, Harvard, in return, had agreed to make provisions in a renovated Craigie Arms for some low-and moderate-income tenants.
But now those same administrators at Harvard Real Estate (HRE) aren't boasting about their new image anymore.
As the Cambridge Rent Control Board prepares to decide later this month whether to approve the University's planned conversion of Craigie Arms to mostly luxury housing. Harvard has come under some of the strongest criticism it has seen in a decade. And the occasion affords the rent control board its best chance yet to convert that criticism to actual investigation.
For the past four years, tenants in Harvard-owned buildings have complained bitterly about "heavy-handed" and "union-busting" tactics on the part of the University. And earlier this month a Cambridge hearing examiner, charged with reviewing testimony and making recommendations to the rent control board in the Craigie Arms case, echoed the sentiments of those tenants.
He characterized Harvard as a self-interested, greedy, and shameful business enterprise, far less concerned than most other landlords with tenants' living conditions.
Harvard as the largest residential landlord in Cambridge, affects not only tenants in individual buildings but "the city as a whole" by its actions, hearing examiner James Packer stated
Tenants who have witnessed Harvard Real Estate send a spy to their organizing meeting, assemble an enemies list, respond incorrectly on state tax forms, award huge pay increases to top administrators while increasing rents, and ignore a tenants union request for recognition were gratified but not surprised by Packer's report.
They probably would be no more surprised to learn that an attorney for HRE has called much of Packer's report "beside the point." For Harvard Real Estate, tenants complaints have for too long been beside the point.
Later this month, the rent control board will have the opportunity to require that, while converting Craigie Arms, Harvard make concessions toward low-and-moderate-income tenants.
The board should seize that opportunity and insist that chief among these concessions be an intensive review of Harvard Real Estate--its management, personnel and its conduct--carried out by members of an independent branch of the University, preferably special assistants to President Bok.
The review would allow tenants, city officials, and most importantly, high-level Harvard administrators themselves to devise reforms in the office of HRE, which currently operates as a quasi-independent branch of the University.
It might also serve to restore confidence in the University's moral character and its desire to avoid exploitation of Cambridge residents.