Allston Renters Fear Growth

On a brisk morning last month, Booker Johnson stands before a row of newly renovated low-income homes in his neighborhood.

He watches as bigwigs from Boston and Harvard, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the University’s top community relations official, cut the ribbon on the project—which had been paid for partly by a Harvard affordable housing fund.

Johnson, who’s lived in Allston for 33 years, says he is thankful for Harvard’s economic assistance on the $1.73 million renovation.

But he worries how the University’s plans to build a new campus in his neighborhood will affect rent-paying tenants in this middle- to low-income community just across the river from Cambridge.

“I don’t know about the business owners and homeowners, but when you’re an everyday resident, like us, it’s not necessarily a good thing,” he says. “You’re competing with students who have a lot of money. I hope and pray I won’t have to move.”

Like a lot of residents, he’s nervous about how Harvard students will impact an already expensive housing market, where renters make up about 80 percent of the population.

Even amid talk of the goodwill and economic revitalization that Harvard could bring to Allston, many tenants worry that Harvard’s inevitable presence will drive up already high rents, reduce community open spaces, aggravate traffic problems and force out affordable housing projects.

“With their large endowment, and the expertise that exists in Harvard, we hope they can help the community a great deal to address the affordable housing issue,” says State Rep. Kevin Honan, whose district includes Allston and neighboring Brighton. “We’d like to see more [affordable housing] developed. But it’s difficult to know what Harvard’s plan is.”

Harvard has committed to building new dorms in Allston to ease pressure on the local housing market, and the 15-story apartment complex at One Western Ave. is near completion.

But a detailed plan for the new campus is still at least a year away, leaving locals uncertain how these commitments will pan out.

Constructing the new campus in Allston is expected to take at least two decades, but already the University’s growth has become a common subject of conversation—and consternation—across the Charles.

“People are always concerned with change,” says Bob van Meter, chair of the Allston-Brighton Community Development Corporation (CDC), who helps run monthly meetings between Harvard officials and community members. “Residents want to ensure that growth allows the community to maintain its vitality, and at the same time, not to be overrun.”

View from the Bus Stop Bar

When Harvard comes up in conversation at the Bus Stop Bar on Western Ave., the University sounds more like an apocalyptic invader than the new kid on the block.

“The only reason they would improve this area is for themselves,” says Jim O’Donnell, a former plumber and long-time Allston resident.

Over the din at this local hang-out, O’Donnell expresses little hope in Allston’s relationship with the University, and he questions Harvard’s commitment to the town’s working-class community.