A Clear Choice


FOR SEVERAL MONTHS, the Harvard-owned Craigie Arms apartment complex has stood vacant on Mt. Auburn St. Harvard Real Estate (HRE), which manages the University's vast holdings in Cambridge, has a $2.5-million renovation planned to convert the deteriorating, 85-year-old building to primarily luxury housing. But the city's rent control board has twice refused to issue HRE the permits it needs to remove Craigie's 59 low-and moderate-income units from Cambridge's tight rental market.

For several months, city tenant activists have argued that a less costly renovation could be accomplished, without losing the building to high rents. But lacking organizational strength or financial resource, their argument has been largely ignored.

Two weeks ago, officials confirmed that an assessment prepared by HRE employees in February 1981 lists only $156,000 in repairs needed at the building. Although both HRE and tenant activists agree that more work would have to be done at Craigie to make the structure habitable, the 1981 report lends new credence to the position that Harvard's renovation plans are excessive. Even if three times the $156,000 mentioned were spent, rents at Craigie would rise by only about $100, leaving them well within the reach of the tenants who occupied the building until this fall.

The decision the University must make is the same it confronts when buying stocks in businesses doing businesses in South Africa or nuclear arms-related research. It is a choice between profitability and morality. We urge Harvard to lean to the latter and develop an alternative plan that would maintain the building as housing for low-income tenants.

HRE officials readily admit that their interest in Craigie is "long-range," they say Harvard bought the property because of its proximity to the rest of the University. The current renovation plan is an optimal means to that end--the "new" Craigie would be owned by the developer, with the University profiting from a long-term ground lease while retaining control over the valuable plot itself. That means no responsibility as a landlord.

That almost feudal interest makes it natural for the University to choose a utopian scheme for the structure's rehabilitation. Tenant activists argue correctly that the project could be done for less, but it would require HRE to continue to manage the building and revenues from the resulting rents might never reach the level of those of a lease on a luxury development. What is important, though, is that the outcome would be the same: Harvard would control the land at 122 Mt. Auburn St. for some unstated future use.

HRE officials say "fiduciary responsibility" to at least not lose money makes alternatives to the current proposal impossible. They add that no substitute plan has been designed. These arguments tend to cloud the issue at Craigie: Harvard will make money with the property whatever is done. It is a question of how much and over what period.

We feel that the profits Harvard might lose by taking the tenants' suggestion are more than balanced by the contribution of not passing the real-world costs of the project to poor Cambridge residents looking for apartments. As one tenant activist describes it. "It is not the question of the building and is it still there, but who lives there."