Landlords who put community over profit

A unique program helps ease the affordable-housing crunch in a quirky corner of Boston

Jamaica Plain might not have the prestige of other Boston locales like Cambridge, Beacon Hill, or Wellesley, but that's not what Deborah and Steve Eisenbach-Budner were looking for.

They moved here four years ago for the neighborhood's unique character. There's the arboretum, where groves of birch rise next to Japanese maple and Austrian pine. There's the Footlight Club - America's oldest community theater. And there's Centre St., with its mix of Indian, Thai, American, Mexican, Cuban, and Irish cuisines, all within a few blocks or one another.

So when they sold their home for a $200,000 profit recently, they wanted to help make sure the Jamaica Plain they love would go on. To do that, the couple - a carpenter and an educator at a local synagogue - donated $10,000 to a one-of-a-kind fund aimed at maintaining the area's signature diversity.

It was a gesture that bespeaks the depth of America's affordable-housing crunch. Cities from Boston to New York to San Francisco have been unable to meet the needs of low-income residents, as post-college professionals and empty nesters snatch up free apartments.

In many ways, Jamaica Plain is special - experts say they know of no other agreement like this nationwide. But many neighborhood groups are beginning to realize that part of the solution is getting landlords and homeowners involved - and they are finding that many are eager to help.

"Their role is really important," says Jennifer Marshall, the fundraising coordinator at City Life/Vida Urbana, the Jamaica Plain organization collecting the donations. She says working with private homeowners "is a key element that is missing from the affordable-housing discussion."

City Life began bringing landlords and tenants together with its 1998 Campaign of Conscience, shortly after Jamaica Plain's quirkiness and relative affordability had made it a new hot spot for young Bostonians. The campaign persuaded many landlords to sign a pledge to charge rent based on cost, not on market trends.

A pledge

The Eisenbach-Budners signed that pledge after they bought their three-story home in Jamaica Plain, planning to rent out the bottom two floors.

"It forced us to really take a look at what was fair rent, not just to get whatever the market would bear," says Mrs. Eisenbach-Budner. But it was hard, adds her husband: "I tried not to keep track of how much we could get because it's too easy to be enticed."

Indeed, in a trend mirrored across the US, the average price of a three-family home here nearly doubled from $118,000 to $220,000 between 1995 and 1999, according to the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation. Average rents for a two-bedroom apartment rose from $861 to $1,288.

That means the Eisenbach-Budners could not afford to buy here today. They just happened to buy in the right place at the right time.

So when they decided to sell, they broke the house into three units and sold each one for some $60,000 to $70,000 under market value. It was another way they felt they could help keep the community affordable.

Us against them

For its part, City Life has so far received $31,000 in donations from homesellers like the Eisenbach-Budners. It's an example of how the us-against-them mentality of tenant organizations is changing, say experts.

"For a long time, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, there was this perception: landlords bad, tenants good," says Harold Simon, executive director of the National Housing Institute, based in Orange, N.J.

But as tenant organizations have grown in strength and taken on the role of landlords themselves - through mutual housing associations or limited-equity cooperatives - that perception has changed.

"They began to realize that being a landlord is really very complicated," says Mr. Simon. There is a lot to maintaining a building, and there are good tenants as well as bad tenants.

He says the Jamaica Plain effort is something other communities should consider. But long-term solutions need to include greater efforts by both neighborhood organizations and the federal government.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has made a great push to help homeowners - and it has had success, with homeownership at its highest level ever. "But that has taken away energy and resources from the rental market," says Simon.

In fact, a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that there is not a single county in the US where a person earning the federal minimum wage - $5.15 an hour - could afford what HUD considers a "modest" two-bedroom apartment.

How to help low-income families

As a result, community groups are trying a wide variety of solutions, like the Campaign of Conscience in Jamaica Plain. Initially, it was created to help low-income families cover the security deposits on apartments. But rents became so high that many people were priced out completely. So City Life began using the money to help families fight eviction.

It helped Dionesia Marte when her building was sold, and the 10-year Jamaica Plain resident saw her rent jump from $700 to $1,400 overnight. "I was very desperate," she says in Spanish. Her tidy, four-bedroom apartment is home to eight family members.

The family downstairs, which had been living in their apartment for 27 years, gave up in frustration and moved out of the city entirely. But Ms. Marte, originally from the Dominican Republic, found City Life. And with the organization's support, she took her new landlord to court. He finally agreed to let her continue paying $700 a month rent if she applied for federal assistance.

Marte says she fought to stay in Jamaica Plain because she loves it here. "I have friends in the neighborhood, my kids are in the schools, the hospital is close, there's not much crime." But most important, she says, she feels accepted here, a part of the community.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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