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.

“They don’t want us,” he says. “They want us out of town.”

Allston has long dealt with the presence of students from Boston University and Boston College, which both locate parts of their campuses in the area.

Harvard long maintained a comparatively minimal presence—until 1997, when a series of articles in The Boston Globe revealed that the University had secretly purchased 52 acres of land in Allston during the preceding decade.

The University instantly became an object of distrust and resentment in the community and, despite making amends with Boston City Hall, its image is still tainted.

Not far from the Bus Stop Bar, a sign for Beal Companies, the real estate developers who purchased the Allston land for Harvard, still stands as a sore reminder.

“You find out from different people what they own, and they’re still buying more,” O’Donnell says. “They’re driving up land prices and rents, and generations are being forced out.”

Meanwhile, he feels Harvard has offered little to the community in return for becoming Allston’s biggest landlord.

“They invite the kids over to the football games once a year and offer them a bologna sandwich,” he says. “That’s supposed to make up for it?”

Linda Callahan, a waitress at the Bus Stop Bar, also doubts whether Harvard has any concern for the community at all.

“Harvard sucks,” she says. “It’s a good school, but it’s going to force people out. The people who have lived here for years...won’t be able to live here anymore.”

Amidst the animosity that prevails in places like the Bus Stop Bar, Harvard is working hard to ease fears and appease the community.

“Yes, Harvard’s a factor here, but we’re not some villain that will buy out people’s homes,” Harvard’s Director of Physical Planning Harris S. Band told residents at a community meeting last month.

“It’s easy for folks to say they don’t see an enormous Harvard presence in Allston,” says Director of Boston Community Relations Kevin A. McCluskey. “But the fact is we’ve established very strong ties with a host of community organizations.”

Last year, Harvard donated the first installment of a promised $5 million grant for after-school programs in Allston-Brighton and other Boston neighborhoods.

McCluskey also points to smaller monetary and in-kind donations to local sports teams and community groups. Harvard has invited residents to use its sports facilities, he says, and its students have offered their volunteer services to local organizations.

Over the past few years, the University has offered Allston-Brighton residents a number of scholarships to the extension school and summer school.

The University has also sought to allay residents’ anxieties over its tax-exempt status, which could mean Allston losing millions in tax revenue.

Harvard’s commercial properties, which make up much of its current Allston presence, are still taxed. And in the future, McCluskey says, as Harvard takes land off the tax rolls it will make up for lost revenue through higher voluntary payments to the city.

“We can’t correct the fact that not everyone is fully informed,” McCluskey says. “We’re more focused on keeping the warm embers burning as opposed to trying to create daily fireworks.”

To many residents, the University’s efforts have so far proved largely unconvincing.

“People don’t feel a connection to [Harvard],” says Minnie Walcott, who lives in one of the apartments that Harvard helped renovate. “It would be better if they’re in the community a little more, if they can show people that they’re out there and they care.”

But another resident in the complex says he appreciates Harvard’s efforts.

Scott Hinton, a 48-year-old single father, regularly takes his daughter to university-sponsored community events.

“I may be among the minority,” he says, “but I don’t think they can do anymore than what they’re doing now.”

He’s grateful for Harvard’s support of after-school and sports programs and holds out hope for the University’s future in his neighborhood.

“There’ll probably be more noise, but it will be safer and nicer,” he says. “I see nothing but the best.”

Homes for All?

To many tenants, Harvard’s most significant contribution to the community so far has been toward affordable housing.

In 2000, the University established a continuously-replenished $10 million loan fund to help affordable housing projects in Boston. And last year, it made a separate $3.5 million donation to build a housing complex in south Allston.

But the University’s largest gift bespeaks its greatest danger—how its student population and economic impact will affect already scarce affordable housing and drive up near-record rent prices.

“Allston-Brighton residents are extremely concerned with their rents going up and the affordability of existing rents,” says Tim McHale, a homeowner who sits on the CDC board.

Two weeks ago the Allston Task Force, charged by Mayor Menino with overseeing the development of Harvard’s 271 acres, held a community meeting specifically to address the housing issue.

McHale attended that meeting and says that along with concerns over rents, come worries about the survival of affordable housing for Allston’s lower income and elderly populations.

“We have food, we have clothes, but we don’t have enough shelter,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a greater issue here.”

Berta Hernandez, who has rented an apartment on Western Ave. for two decades, says housing prospects are bleak in light of Harvard’s expansion.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says. “I’m worried. The rent is getting really high, and it’s very hard to find an apartment in this neighborhood, an affordable place.”

While continued affordable housing development is at the center of Boston’s current $2 billion citywide housing plan, it remains to be seen how Harvard’s development in North Allston will affect the location of current low-income residents in the area.

Lead among the uncertainties is the future of the Charlesview Apartments, an affordable housing project just past Harvard Stadium, which houses 210 families and 23 elderly or handicapped residents. Harvard doesn’t own the land, but its holdings nearly surround Charlesview.

When the issue came up at the recent community meeting, Harvard’s Band said the University is making “no commitments one way or another” on the future of Charlesview.

But Josephine Fiorentino, chair of the apartment complex’s board, cast doubts over the buildings’ future in their current location.

“Harvard has not forced any decisions upon us, but we are exploring all options,” she says. Charlesview “will always be non-profit housing, but it may not be there always.”

Charlesview resident Sorange De Lorenzo says that, while she and other tenants are concerned about Harvard’s possible interest in the property, residents feel powerless to protest.

“Right now, it would be really hard for me since I’m involved in school and working, and many of the other residents are elderly people, so it’s hard for them too,” she says. “It seems like it comes down to whoever has more money is who people are going to hear.”

Representative Honan says his constituents—both landowners and tenants—are responsible for participating in the monthly planning meetings with Harvard and Allston officials.

“The tenants absolutely have an opportunity to express their concerns at these meetings and they will be listened to,” he says. “It’s up to them to make time and show up.”

Yet even residents who find the time to attend the meetings are skeptical about whether their input will make a difference in the planning process, says Charlene DiCalagero, who works for the local Homes for All initiative.

“The tenants are a bit discouraged,” she says of fellow residents who attend the meetings. “We’ve consistently been treated with condescension.”

But McHale and other community leaders remain more optimistic about the input process and the potential for Harvard to help, rather than hurt, Allston’s housing situation.

“I like what I see, until I see differently,” McHale says. “I’m going out a limb with them. It could be a house of cards, but there’s also amazing win-win potential.”

At the recent community meeting, Harvard planners reiterated that they remain “very committed” to the University’s goal of improving Allston’s affordable housing stock.

But as the community looks forward to addressing a slew of other issues related to Harvard’s expansion, at the moment residents are most anxious to see how Harvard fulfills its housing commitment.

“They can say whatever they want,” De Lorenzo says from the kitchen of her Charlesview apartment. “But it all depends on whether they actually do something.”

—Staff writer Alexander L. Pasternack can be reached at apastern@fas.harvard.edu.