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Would You Rent an Apartment From Harvard University?

By Jonathan D. Rabinovitz

Once upon a time there was a small group of tenants and a big landlord. The tenants weren't happy with their building's numerous health code violations, so they complained to their landlord. The landlord would not act, so the tenants took legal action and forced him to respond. The landlord then made all the repairs, and they all lived happily ever after.

Somehow, real life dramas never endure so beautifully as fairy tales. A number of tenants in 22-24 Prescott St., a Harvard owned building, complained in November about their building's condition and the repairs have not yet been completed. They also may face a rent increase for "capital improvements" which they say only brings the building up to the health code, the basic requirements for habitability of an apartment. After six months of negotiations, some tenants were threatened with eviction. Still, the tenants consider the amount of repairs they have gotten, and the eviction and larger rent increase they have avoided important enough to view their struggle as a victory, Howard P. Ramseur, a tenant, said.

Serious problems with the building can be traced back to the "reluctant retirement" of the resident superintendent, George Jordan, in January of 1977, tenants said. Jordan was replaced by a few superintendents, who had to cover more units, and did not always reside in the buildings.

Although Jordan did not prevent some decay in the building's condition, he prevented total chaos by clearing trash, doing minor repairs, keeping a security watch and keeping the heating system in good order, tenants said. But the Christmas after his departure was a Christmas without heat.

Jordan was unable to prevent total decay because of the inadequate amount of money Harvard was allotting for maintenance. In 1967, $4431 was spent on maintenance and repairs, while $1353 was spent in 1978, not counting inflation.

In November, tenants distributed a number of survey sheets to poll the condition of the apartments. The survey revealed a number of violations of the State Sanitary Code, Article II, tenants said.

"In general I thought the building was in good shape," Lorraine S. Wade, director of tenant relations for Harvard, said. "A lot of work had to be done in individual units which we had no way of knowing about," Wade said. "Tenants complained to the superintendent, but not to us," she added.

Windows in the common rooms and apartments were not weathertight, the tenants' report said. One tenant, who wished to remain anonymous, reported that her windows had blown in on her. The stairways were "not in good repair." Lorraine Irritano, a tenant, sprained her ankle walking down them. The "dwelling was infested with cockroaches," the tenants' report said.

In the two years prior to the survey, seven ceilings had collapsed--four in the previous year, tenants said, adding that holes spanned up to two feet wide. Herbert Nipson, a tenant, knew when the occupant below him was smoking a cigar, because he could smell it.

In their survey, tenants claimed that heat was not supplied at the proper temperatures (68-78 degrees). Tenants said this problem was caused by the building's back wall which allowed the wind to blow through cracks between the window fixtures and the wall.

Because of the cracks, some apartments were as cold as 45 degrees when the brisk wind hit the wall. When the wind did not, occupants "boiled" because of the overheating provided to compensate for the wall's heat-leak.

The bad condition of the wall was first noticed a few years ago by ex-superintendent Jordan. His report on it in the Cambridge health department files said that contractors would visit it annually, but that nothing was done after the estimates for repair were received. In 1974, a contractor estimated the cost to be $7000, Jordan's report says. Hunneman and Co.--the company which manages Harvard housing--estimated in April the cost of repair to be $24,250.

On December 10, Richard Bland, Vice-President of Hunneman and Co. and 1978 Realtor of the Year, and Wade met with the tenants to discuss these problems as well as others.

One week later, Bland and Wade announced to the tenants that Harvard and Hunneman were applying to the Cambridge Rent Control Board for a 35 per cent to 90 per cent rent increase. The "special adjustment" hike was based on the capital improvements Harvard and Hunneman were going to make. Sally H. Zeckhauser, president of Harvard Real Estate, just established last fall, said.

"According to Rent Control Board Regulations, a landlord cannot charge to tenants repairs made to bring an apartment or common area up to the Cambridge Sanitary Codes, and therefore cannot get a rent increase because of those repairs," Ramseur said.

Zeckhauser said the special adjustment rent increase has occurred in a few of the Harvard owned buildings. She added it is a natural policy for landlords to note large capital improvements. Wade is reported to have said at this meeting that such an action would not have been taken had tenants not brought the violations to Harvard/Hunneman's attention.

The first official city of Cambridge Health Inspection was scheduled for February 15. Inspector Joseph Cremens confirmed most of the tenants' complaints, citing more than 125 health code violations in five inspections. By the end of his visit, he had only seen approximately half of the buildings' apartments.

On Cremens's second inspection on March 1, he recorded on his notation sheet that "some progress" was made. But the tenants still felt that the common areas and other units were in need of repair. In protest, on March 1, some tenants chose to withhold their rent in an escrow account until the building met health guidelines.

On the third reinspection on March 15, Cremens declared "very little progress." It was not until April 15 that he acknowledged a number of the corrections in the common room in 24 Prescott St. He returned again on April 30 and found more improvements.

Tenants continued to refuse to pay their rent because the back wall had not been repaired, and numerous apartments still had cracks and holes in the walls and ceilings.

Harvard, on May 4, brought eviction procedures against the tenants who were withholding their rents. The tenants said they saw it as a scare tactic to alienate others in the building, who were marginally participating in the protest. "It's scary to have a constable at your door," Ramseur said.

The notice for them "to quit" their apartment came ten days before the examiner's hearing to determine whether Harvard was justified in asking for a rent increase. Harvard, as of April 17, had amended their petition, requesting only a 20 per-cent to 40 per-cent increase, Zeckhauser said. Originally Hunneman/Harvard's petition had stated that they were losing money on the buildings. Now it showed they were making a profit.

The amount of the rent increase set at the hearing is largely dependent on the condition of the buildings. Harvard started a flurry of repairs the week before the examiner's hearing, Leo Manis, a tenant, said. Nipson once returned from work at 6 a.m., only to have unannounced workmen awake him at seven. Another time, Nipson returned home to find all his kitchen utensils moved by painters from the kitchen and left on the living room floor. "Hunneman just didn't have its heart in the repairs," he said.

The hearing took place on May 14. The examiner's recommendation is still unreleased. The hearing was extraordinarily long, dragging on for eight hours.

Harvard Real Estate and the group of tenants continued to negotiate other factors besides the amount of the rent after the hearing. Harvard could have followed up on the eviction procedure. At the same time, the tenants could have tried to sue Harvard for retaliatory eviction, claiming Harvard was evicting them for their complaints in regard to the health code.

The tenants also wanted reabatements--money for the time they had live in housing below the Health Code, a violation of the tenants' leases.

In early June, Wade negotiated furiously with the tenants. They reached a tentative agreement on May 5, which all parties signed. Both sides had their lawyers write up what they thought they had agreed to. When the two documents were presented the next day, there were serious differences. Zeckhauser said variations stemmed from semantics.

Talks were opened up again in mid-June. A settlement was finally reached on June 18. Both sides now agreed to drop all discussion about the rent increase, accepting whatever the examiner decided, and gradually implementing the increase in steps. Harvard agreed not to raise the rent until March 26, 1981, unless a major capital expense is required. Harvard dropped their eviction threat and paid tenants varying rebatements. All tenants dropped their right to protest violations which had occured in the past.

The group of tenants said they do have some worries over the settlement. All of them want a resident superintendent. Harvard unofficially agreed to bring back a resident superintendent. At the moment, though, there are no one-room apartments available, Zeckhauser said. "We have 100 per-cent occupancy," she added.

The tenants were also worried about the lack of a "Grandfather Clause" in the settlement, protecting people on a fixed income from rent increases above their means. This clause would especially aid the number of elderly who live in the buildings. If the tenants had won this point, a terrible precedent would have been set for Cambridge landlords, Ramseur said.

Tenants said they were also unsure whether the repairs would be finished. The back wall is still untouched, other than the continuing crumble of bricks to the ground.

"The settlement was a containment," Ramseur said. "We found a way of keeping them at bay," Michael Turk, a tenant, said.

"I think it's really behind us, and I don't foresee any problems," Wade said. "I feel we're all friends," she added. The negotiations were on a level of "mutual respect," she said.

Turk said Harvard Real Estate treated us like "peons." Daniel Polvere, attorney for Harvard Real Estate, said at the examiner's hearing that he found meetings with tenants "distasteful." And Jack Feeney, a former superintendent for the buildings, reportedly told a tenant that Hunneman asked him "not to talk with residents."

Tenants accused Harvard of trying to intimidate them with their vast financial resources.

Zeckhauser described the whole situation as "a learning experience." Harvard Real Estate learned "not only from the special adjustment process," she said, "but also learned a lot about tenant relations."

The tenants have also learned much from the experience. One tenant said he now saw how the legal process favors the landlord, requiring tenants to miss days of work in order to organize and file litigation.

Ramseur said he saw the settlement not just as a victory for tenants in these buildings, but as "a victory for all Harvard tenants, and the tenants on Mission Hill and Cambridge Port who are resisting Harvard expansion. This victory shows that organized tenants can win against Harvard."

The tenants in this story did. For seven months they tried to persuade their landlord to correct 125 health code violations in their building.

Their struggle is not over.

Seven ceilings had collapsed--four in one year--with with holes spanning up to two feet wide.

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