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This little-known student group, which offers no-interest housing loans to Boston residents down on their luck, is creating new buzz

By Robert K. Silverman, Crimson Staff Writer

The Boston real estate market is hot.

First-class universities, cultural institutions and rapidly expanding computer and biotechnology sectors are attracting swarms of people and resources to the metropolitan area, sparking a city-wide renaissance, impacting even the poorest sections of Boston.

But with prosperity comes a price.

Gentrification, long recognized as a problem in Boston's suburbs, is spreading throughout the metropolitan area, raising rents in traditionally wealthy communities like Cambridge and in poorer neighborhoods such as Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.

The booming real estate market, coming on the heels of the abolition of rent control in 1994, has created what politicians and civic leaders term a "crisis in affordable housing." They say the current housing crunch is the number one problem facing the greater Boston community.

Despite the plethora of student service groups on campus--well over a hundred, at last count--only one organization seeks to directly confront the problem of skyrocketing rents and mass evictions.

The Housing Opportunities Program (HOP) provides one-time, no-interest loans to Boston-area residents to meet housing payments, with the goal of forestalling eviction and preventing homelessness.

In recent months, program leaders have initiated a major overhaul of the program--founded more than a decade ago--to create a new internal structure, forge better connections to the community and increase available funds.

Bigger, Better, Faster

Over the next year, program leaders say they hope to increase the legitimacy of HOP as a community organization, by streamlining the program, raising more funds, recruiting new volunteers and focusing on outreach.

"We hope to rebuild a large fund and want to make more connections with the community," says Michelle S. Lee '03, the program director. "[We want to] legitimize our organization--we don't want to be seen as [just] a student group."

Group organizers recently restructured the program. Lee heads the organization, while Stephanie C. Stallings '02, the program coordinator, works directly below her.

The group now also includes three committees focusing on specific task areas, including fundraising, public relations and client loans.

Varsha Ghosh, a director of programs at the Phillips Brooks House Association, has helped in the restructuring process.

She says the program's current efforts at internal reform will further the group's goals of raising more funds, recruiting more volunteers and establishing a more prominent community presence.

"I've really been encouraged by this new programming staff," she says. "They've been incredibly forward thinking in looking at the program's structure. They're very proactive in looking at the long-term and ensuring its sustainability."

Getting Out, Giving Back

Each HOP client receives a $400 loan, but the circumstances of each case vary widely.

Most face extenuating circumstances--such as an illness or disability--that prevents them from meeting a single rent payment.

"The ideal client is someone who's child got sick, missed a week of work, and at the end of the month are a little behind," Lee says. "If some unfortunate thing happens, we're here as a safety net to prevent homelessness."

Last semester, HOP was able to prevent 14 evictions.

Clients--who reside throughout the Boston area--must undergo a written application and face-to-face interview process to qualify for loans.

HOP first learns of cases from local social service organizations with which they have cultivated a relationship, particularly Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD). ABCD social workers provide their clients with applications, who send them to HOP's mailbox in Phillips Brooks House (PBH).

After receiving an application, a HOP member will call the client within a day or two to schedule an interview at PBH.

Interviews last about 30 minutes, and focus primarily on the client's financial situation and need for a loan.

"We try to assess if our loan can actually help this person," says Richard C. Worf '03, the chair of the client loans committee. "We don't want to burden them with a loan that we don't think can help them."

After learning about a client's case, the HOP interviewer then becomes an advocate for that individual, with the responsibility of supporting the claim at HOP's weekly meeting, held every Thursday at 5 p.m. At the meeting, group members debate the merits of each case and decide, by consensus, whether or not to offer the client a loan.

"It's the job of the person who does the interview to make a case for the interviewee," Worf says. "It's very rarely clear-cut--there are some tough decisions that have to be made."

If the group decides to offer a client a loan, the individual must again travel to PBH, to sign a contract specifying the terms of repayment.

After the contract signing, HOP will mail a check for $400 directly to the client's landlord.

Worf says HOP conducts about two interviews per week, and currently has about 20 active loans, most from last semester.

Taking Care of Business

Program leaders say HOP functions more like a bank than a traditional service group, based on a model of social enterprise.

"We're trying to apply the methods of business management to social work on a very local level, to fill a niche in the community," Worf says.

Stallings says the group tries hard to treat its clients as individuals, worthy of respect.

"We want to avoid the danger of service that is patronizing or authoritarian, that is imposed from the outside and doesn't respect that people can make decisions for themselves," she says. "I feel like HOP maintains the integrity [of viewing] people as people."

The entire loan process--from application to interview to contract--usually takes about 10 days, but can be completed even more quickly to meet the specific needs of clients.

The loans, which do not accumulate interest, are quite flexible. Clients can choose the amount they wish to repay each month, ranging from $20 to $50.

But repayment of loans has been a major problem for HOP in the past. Over the past several years repayment rates have sunk to less than 50 percent. Because the program operates as a revolving loan fund--relying on incoming payments to fund new loans--the loss of payments creates a severe drain on the group's capital.

"Clients pay us at a very slow rate, and some don't repay us at all," Lee says.

She says she hopes to raise the repayment rate to 75 percent over the next year.

To boost their level of capital, program leaders say this semester they are focusing primarily on fundraising, and will be offering fewer loans to clients.

New Opportunities

HOP began in 1989, with a very different mission and strategy than it currently employs.

Originally founded as an organization to help transition people from homelessness to housing with capital of $30,000, HOP was able to offer loans of up to $4,000.

The program received its support from the Harvard faculty, with about a dozen professors making individual contributions of $50 to $5,000.

HOP has continued to rely on the same group of about a dozen professors, all anonymous, who typically make regular contributions of about $200.

"They're teaching at Harvard but [realize] Harvard isn't a good neighbor," Lee says. "Living in Boston, they want to contribute to the neighborhood."

Lee says in the coming year HOP hopes to leverage more funds from outside grants and to expand its base of contributors at Harvard.

"A lot of [the contributors] are the same people who were involved at the beginning," she says. "We send out letters to people who have given in the past but don't really solicit new professors. We want to expand there."

With more money, Lee says, the program would be able to give out higher loans, a necessary change because of rising rents.

"We've found that increasingly, $400 isn't enough," she says.

The group also plans to establish a more prominent presence in the metropolitan area with the creation of a community advisory board.

Stallings says the board would include representatives from local banks, management companies, church groups, legal counsel and community development corporations.

She also says she hopes the board will include a representative from Harvard's office of government, community and public affairs. Last year, the office headed a University initiative to provide $20 million for affordable housing in Boston and Cambridge.

"What we're looking to do this year is to establish legitimacy," Stallings says. "The advisory board will provide technical knowledge and expertise."

HOP also hopes to expand virtually, by establishing a presence on the Internet.

Yaw D.K. Osseo-Asare '02, the group's public relations director, says the program is already using the Internet for research and will launch its own website next semester.

"We're carrying out an in-depth study of the affordable housing presence on the Internet," Osseo-Asare writes in an e-mail message. "When our site goes up next semester I think it will establish us as an integral component of how the community which houses Harvard deals with the issue of affordable housing and homelessness."

In addition, HOP hopes to attract new volunteers.

Two first-years have already expressed interest, attracted by the program's ambitious mission and businesslike approach.

"This is a serious organization that has serious repercussions in the Boston and Cambridge community," says Johnathan J. Smith '04. "They have clear goals and aspirations about what they want to do and accomplish."

Smith says HOP's unique task distinguishes it from other service groups on campus.

"This is different from tutoring or working in a homeless shelter...because you're actually taking means and methods to prevent people from becoming homeless."

Our House

Program members say HOP is a very close, tight-knit community.

"The structure of the program is very tight-knit," Worf says. "There are very capable people running the show."

With less than a dozen members who often collaborate closely on difficult issues, the group has developed tight bonds.

"We're very dedicated," Lee says. "We're a tight group of friends."

But she emphasizes the work HOP does is serious.

Most members work between five and 10 hours per week, and confront significant problems.

"A lot of time you feel depressed when you come home from interviewing a client," Lee says. "You can't complain about the dining hall food you're meeting with people that can't afford food."

But members say the seriousness of their work is what inspires them to stay involved.

Osseo-Asare says he chose HOP over other program because he considers the services the program provides to be both essential and quantifiable.

"I felt like I could not handle one more minute of mentoring or tutoring," he writes. "I definitely consider those sort of programs invaluable, but what makes me dedicated to HOP is that so much of what we do is quantitative."

"We can say at the end of a meeting, 'Wow, we really did help this family keep from getting evicted, or ending up on the street, or whatever,' " he adds.

"Right now, I think HOP is on the verge of doing better than anyone ever expected it could," he writes.

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