Merchants oppose sober housing in Lower Mills

A monthly meeting of Lower Mills business owners held last Thursday evening in the Carney Hospital boardroom focused on a still-emerging plan to convert four buildings on Washington Street into “sober” living quarters for veterans. Business leaders, backed by the new Boston city councillor who represents the village, vowed to campaign against the sober home conversion, citing concerns about the lack of experience of the development team and the density of the project.

In March, the merchants association hosted a sometime-tense meeting that featured the owners of the buildings— the Molloy brothers of the longtime funeral home name— and John Ingram, the director of operations at the Eastern Massachusetts Real Estate Investors Association, which is currently leasing the four buildings. At that meeting, Ingram confirmed that his team of investors sought to house up to 28 veterans to live in a “sober environment” in the buildings. Ingram and the Molloys have agreed to a three-year term lease, with an option for Ingram’s group to buy the 1.15-acre property, which includes seven units total in four buildings. The agreement was reached in January. Neither the Molloys nor anyone representing the sober home community was present at last week’s meeting.

City Councillor Frank Baker, who took office last January, said his office has been vigilant in calling in city inspectors and fire officials to scrutinize activity at the buildings— centered on the former Molloy’s funeral home at 1126 Washington Street. (In March, city inspectors discovered that there was unauthorized construction work happening at the address and issued a temporary stop-work order.) But, Baker told the merchants that until the buildings are actually occupied, there is little that his office or anyone else can do to confront the issue.

“We’re being told that there’s nothing we can do unless there are more than four people in each [apartment] unit,” Baker told the group. “But, they’re not up and running yet.”

Michael Skillin, president of the Lower Mills Civic Association, told the group that John Ingram, the lead contact for the development group that is leasing the properties, has declined to meet with his organization.

“We can’t get a handle on whether it is a sober house or something else,” said Skillin, who said his membership is worried that the stretch of Washington Street will become a campus of rooming houses.

This week, an ad posted on a website for those seeking “affordable sober living rooms to rent” offered a Lower Mills location as a “zero tolerance house with a great success rate.” The same listing, called Project Outlook, advised potential tenants to “keep us in mind for our new line of veterans housing opening soon.” The ad continues, “We are renovating a building in Lower Mills exclusively for vets.”

James Lamarr, one of the contact people for Project Outlook, responded to the Reporter’s request for more information on the Washington Street project. Lamarr said that he and Ingram had met with officials from the Boston Police and the mayor’s office to give them more information about the sober housing. Lamarr said the group would be “happy” to meet with civic leaders as well, but said he had not yet been invited to do so.

“We want to find a good, reasonable way to move forward,” Lamarr said, adding that he personally has supervised sober home operations before. “We do take into consideration the feelings of the neighborhood.”

Chris English, Mayor Thomas Menino’s liaison to Dorchester’s District Three, confirmed that Lamarr and Ingram met with him and Boston Police Captain Thomas Sexton, commander of the Area C-11 district, at City Hall two weeks ago. English said that they discussed the proposed programming at the sites and the city’s concerns about potential issues there.

“They did agree that they’ll put all four people in each unit on the lease, which is something that Captain Sexton really pushed for,” English told the Reporter.

English said that the city’s law department was still reviewing documents supplied to him by Lamarr.

In 2010, the state Legislature ordered the state’s Department of Public Health to prepare a report on the largely unregulated sober home industry in Massachusetts. That report has not yet been submitted to lawmakers, but could be available for review in the coming weeks. Baker, together with City Councillor Tito Jackson, has co-sponsored a city council order calling for a hearing into the sober home issue in Boston. Baker told merchants last week that he intends to call them in to testify on the issue.

“I think this will be a neighbor-driven sort of issue,” Baker said. “We need to start barraging the mayor’s office, our elected officials’ offices with letters.”

Anthony Paculli, who serves as the president of the Merchants Association, told his fellow members to gird themselves for a potentially prolonged campaign, which he compared to another recent battle in Lower Mills to keep the local library branch from closing.

“If we hang in and persevere and are consistent, we’ll be successful,” Paculli said. “This campaign isn’t against any individual; it’s for what’s right for the community.”