A Mixed Blessing
Harvard Compromises at Craigie Arms
Last winter, as the final tenants moved out of a Harvard-owned building at 7 Sumner Rd., one said "it's no use fighting Harvard. They just wear you down and in the end they win." The once-full brick apartment-house is now full of Graduate School of Design offices.
But that was last year. Last week, a group of Harvard tenants in the Craigie Arms apartments on Mt. Auburn St. agreed to move out of their homes. They will take with them $5000 apiece and an apology from the University And when their homes are converted to luxury apartments, as many as a third of the units will be set side for low-income residents.
In both cases, Harvard got what it wanted--an empty apartment building. But this time, in the words of city councilor David Sullivan, the University "paid a stiff price."
And even more than the result, the process used to clear out the tenants marked a startling change. In the case of 7 Sumner Rd.--and in other cases before it--the University eschewed negotiation and compromise, preferring to use its legal and administrative resources to fight a battle to the finish.
At Craigie Arms, though, teams of University officials met for months on end with tenants of the building, hammering out the compromise released last week. It includes not only the financial recompense for departing tenants and the guarantee that some of the renovated building will remain for low and moderate income tenants, but also--perhaps most significantly--an apology from the University for "uncertainly and substantial inconvenience caused tenants."
That clause failed to completely satisfy some local tenant activists One noted. for instance, that tenant Carol Trowbridge was raped when an unrepaired buzzer system forced her to open her apartment door. "I'd say that was a little more than an inconvenience," one tenant said.
And others pointed out that Harvard's plans to renovate the building, which still must win city Rent Control Board approval, will remove much moderately priced housing despite the promise of some low-income units in the future development.
In the light of past disputes like 7 Sumner Rd though, the settlement is a big victory for the tenants, who didn't move from the building despite the uncertain climate and who stayed united in their dealings with the University.
Coming as it does on the heels of Harvard's negotiations and eventual compromise with the homeowners further up Mt. Auburn St. over plans for the University Place office, housing, and retail complex, some said the outcome may be further evidence of a new Harvard willingness to compromise, not fight.
The passage of tough new zoning legislation that will require city approval of expanded University classrooms, labs and dorms, may be one reason for Harvard's change of heart. "There is no question they see this as a way to make some friends in the community." One tenant who asked not to be identified said.
But the efforts of the newly formed Harvard Tenants Union (HTU) may have been equally as important in forcing the compromise. The HTU wasn't around when the Sumner Rd battle was at its height: its leadership kept public pressure on the University throughout the Mt. Auburn St. dispute, however.
In some ways, then, local tenant activists would be pleased if the University viewed the Craigie Arms case as a precedent and negotiated with angry tenants in the years to come. Some are worried though, that the price paid to tenants in the building may convince the University they can simply buy out residents and empty other buildings for their use.
HTU coordinator Turk added that the settlement, while unquestionably a victory for the residents of Craigie Arms, might lead both Harvard and the Rent Control Board to view landlord-tenant financial settlements as a permissible way to circumvent the city's anti-eviction policies. "The city's interests are very different from the individual tenant's interests." Sullivan, who called the final agreement a "mixed blessing," said.
A mixed blessing, however, is far more than tenants have won from the University in the past. If nothing else, the men and women who used to live at 7 Sumner Rd, would be amazed.