Non-profits, city cast eyes on preservation

Alma Chislom’s Dorchester apartment building was purchased out of foreclosure by a newly formed nonprofit. Jesse Costa/WBUR photo

This story first aired on WBUR 90.9FM. Listen to it here.

In 2012 Alma Chislom had just moved into an apartment in Dorchester’s Four Corners neighborhood when she had an unexpected visitor. She buzzed the man into the building and when she went out onto her third-floor landing to see what he wanted, he yelled up from the bottom of the stairwell: “If I buy this place, do you guys still want to live here?” Said Chislom: “I was puzzled because I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

She did a little internet research. “And sure enough, I found out the house was foreclosed and being auctioned.” Her landlord, who lived in the bottom unit, hadn’t said anything about the foreclosure.

The auction was scheduled for two days later, and Chislom remembers people assembling on her front yard.

“They showed up with clipboards and megaphones, and they were really starting to have this auction! I stayed home and I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “The next thing I know, another set of people came, and got out of their cars and told them to stop.” These new people were with City Life Vida Urbana, a housing justice organization. The group’s protest led to the auction being called off.

During the foreclosure crisis about a decade ago, City Life held rallies and provided legal assistance to foreclosed homeowners and affected renters. The group wanted banks to reduce debts, and sell the houses back to foreclosed homeowners.

“And if the homeowner still didn’t have the resources to buy back the building, then we would ask a nonprofit entity to hold onto the building, so that the land could be held in perpetuity and the tenants could stay,” says Lisa Owens, City Life’s executive director.

A nonprofit — called COHIF, or Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure — formed and Chislom’s building was among the first it purchased. COHIF now owns six properties in Dorchester, amounting to 15 units of permanently affordable housing for low-income tenants.

COHIF is an example of how, amid the housing affordability crisis, advocates and the city of Boston are trying to purchase apartment units from the private market, and keep them affordable.

Competition hard for nonprofits

Financing the acquisition and rehabilitation of foreclosed properties requires cobbling together money from private lenders and city and state funding.

“As we build a lot of affordable housing, we also need to ensure that tenants that are here now, that are living in residential buildings, are protected from rent increases, and one way to do that is to take apartment buildings out of the speculative market,” says Sheila Dillon, the city of Boston’s chief of housing.

The goal of buying buildings and making them permanently affordable is part of the city’s affordable housing plan. (The other aspects include assisting at-risk tenants and building more affordable housing.)

Much of the money for the city’s plan comes from its inclusionary development policy, which requires developers to pay into an affordable housing fund if they don’t build the units themselves.

Established community development corporations and nonprofit developers are often in a position to intervene to purchase buildings, make improvements, and keep them affordable. But coming up with enough money fast enough is a barrier, and an owner, of course, has the option not to take a nonprofit’s bid. Often, nonprofits get outbid by investors or developers with deeper pockets.

“So we’ve really focused our energies and resources to have nonprofits, and some for-profits that are in the affordable housing business, to buy occupied buildings and keep the rents affordable,” Dillon says.

The Jamaica Plain Nonprofit Development Corporation (JPNDC) has been in the business of building low-income housing in the neighborhood for decades. Recently, with help from the city’s acquisition program, JPNDC was able to purchase 201 units from the estate of a Roxbury developer.

In another ambitious effort — coordinated with the city and the state — JPNDC and its partners, Community Builders and Urban Edge, have been able to completely transform the formerly vacant state-owned land around the Jackson Square MBTA station. In its place, several new buildings have risen up, with 60 percent of the new apartments for low-income households.

But Richard Thal, JPNDC’s executive director, said that possibilities like Jackson Square are becoming rarer. And nonprofits compete at a significant disadvantage on the private market. He recalls a plan to purchase property that would have been a good site for elder housing.

“We were anticipating making an offer of around a million dollars, and when [JPNDC’s] real estate director talked to the seller’s lawyer ... he just laughed and said, ‘You’re maybe at half, if that, of what the seller thinks he can get on the private market,’ ” Thal said. “Given how hot the real estate market is, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to compete on privately owned parcels.”

The city is trying to lower this barrier by pursuing legislation that would give tenant associations the first shot to purchase a building, or ask a nonprofit to step in. But tenants would need to get organized and form an association.

For Owens, the executive director of City Life, organizing tenants is going to be the way to get more buildings off the market. “There is no way we are going to amass capital to buy land at its current market value,” she said.

City Life’s approach has two prongs: The first is to bring public attention and pressure to landlords or banks when they are engaging in practices City Life deems harmful to tenants or homeowners. The second is to provide legal assistance to tenants and foreclosed homeowners so they can negotiate an agreement to stay in their homes.

Building clear-outs — in which an owner raises rents to evict tenants and then sell once the building is empty — are a key rallying point. City Life will try to stop a clear-out or encourage a seller to take a nonprofit’s bid on the building.

A home has ‘different values’

Some people might feel uneasy about City Life’s tactics. Shouldn’t property owners be able to do whatever they want with their buildings? Why is making the largest profit possible such a bad thing?

The answer, say others, is because a home is not like other property.

“A home has different values for different people. For those living in it, they could value a place because members of their community with whom they associate live close by,” says Rashmi Dyal-Chand, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law. “That’s something that can’t be picked up and relocated in the way that we sometimes ask people to do. It’s the kind of thing our policymaking isn’t good at capturing.”

It’s this other aspect of property — what makes it special — that our laws have a harder time protecting. Because our laws generally privilege market value over other aspects of property, they protect ownership. It’s hard for our policies to conceive of the rights of non-owners — people like renters.

It’s why rent control is unpopular among landlords; it constrains an owner’s ability to maximize market value. It’s why some might feel discomfort when groups like City Life try to force a negotiation by calling out a landlord for practices that are legal, but some may see as unfair. They are asserting the rights of non-owners.

“What we have to do, at a basic level, is just acknowledge homes mean something other than tradable commodities,” Dyal-Chand says.

She says ownership has never meant being able to do anything with your property. Landlords can’t discriminate on the basis of race. In Massachusetts there are laws governing landlords’ obligations to their tenants — such as providing heat and sanitary conditions.

Why couldn’t being a responsible property owner mean not levying rent increases that would so burden tenants as to result in displacement? New Jersey has a law making “unconscionable” rent increases illegal.

“If we all started to think about ownership as requiring a certain higher level of stewardship, that would be a really interesting and wonderful thing,” Dyal-Chand says.

Feeling settled in her home

Chislom is still in Four Corners, in a different COHIF-owned building. She lives with her partner, Burt, and her youngest daughter in a three-bedroom apartment where her living room is decorated with family photos.

Chislom says that living in her COHIF unit is the first time she felt like she could hang pictures on the wall, the first time she felt she could buy lawn furniture to leave outside. Because of her experience with housing instability — and then being able to get her home back — she has become involved with community organizing herself: going to meetings, volunteering her time with City Life.

“There are so many organizations out there, all trying to do the same thing: trying to prevent people being displaced, trying to get better jobs, trying to get affordable rents,” she says. “If we unite, I think we could really do it.”

Chislom is nearing 60. She has lived in a series of apartments in Dorchester her whole life. She raised her five children in the neighborhood — taking them to Franklin Park, going to their sports games, taking them to cookouts with neighbors. In all likelihood, she won’t ever have to worry about losing her home.

This story first aired on Feb. 22 on WBUR 90.9FM, Boston’s NPR News Station. WBUR and the Reporter have a partnership in which the two news organizations share content and resources. This is one of a series of stories that aired on WBUR last week. Listen and read them all online at wbur.org.