Initiative turns seniors into landlords

Bertram Alleyne is back on solid ground. A few years ago he had to board up the three-family home that he bought in 1968 for himself and his mother. The stairs had become shaky, the porches hazardous. Like many other longtime homeowners in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, Mr. Alleyne didn't have enough funds for renovations.

Now the structure is restored, the hardwood floors are gleaming, and Alleyne is preparing to move back in. He calls himself the poster boy (never mind that he's 66) for the Senior Vacant Unit Initiative.

While many programs nationwide give senior citizens financial help for renovations so they can "age in place," the initiative goes a step further: It offers to find tenants and manage rental units that otherwise would sit empty in the seniors' multifamily homes. In exchange, homeowners agree to rent to low-income families. The program's founders hope it will inspire replicas in other cities facing the twin challenges of an affordable-housing crunch and an aging population.

"There are 24 million low-income homeowners in this country ... and we're very concerned that those folks often don't have the ability to stay there if the furnace goes or the roof goes," says Patty Johnson, president of Rebuilding Together, a national group that organizes volunteers to renovate houses. Many people they serve are senior citizens, and Ms. Johnson is encouraged by any initiative that shares the goal of helping seniors maintain their homes with dignity. "Ninety percent of people say they want to age in their own home - they say, 'This is where my memories are. I'm comfortable here,' " she says.

In Boston, it was the wasted potential that prompted the Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation to launch the vacant-unit program in 2001.

Confronting fears

"We found that many seniors have owned for a long time and mostly paid off their mortgages, but they are afraid to take on the [task of] construction to bring the apartments up to code, and they are afraid of being landlords," says Kevin Winn, director of lending and technical assistance.

About 35 percent of the homeowners in Dorchester and nearby Roxbury are over age 62, he says, and the vacancy rate in these neighborhoods is at least 7 percent, almost double that of Boston as a whole.

The vacant-unit initiative has assisted 14 homeowners and has placed 25 rental units back on the market. Both the owners and the renters must have incomes of 80 percent or lower than the median. In Boston, a family of four with income under $66,000 would qualify, and an affordable rate for a three-bedroom apartment would be about $1,400 a month.

The owners get loans at 0 percent interest for up to half the construction costs from the city, and market-rate loans from local banks for the rest. If they want comprehensive rental- management services, they pay $250 to $350 a month to Nuestra Comunidad, which employs local residents. After those expenses, most of the owners bring in an extra $1,000 a month, Mr. Winn estimates.

"It takes you out of what I call economic slavery," Alleyne says of the income he'll be getting from renting out his first- and second-floor apartments, which will supplement his home-alarm business.

Alleyne doesn't think he'll need help managing tenants, but he says the program has moved him past the distrust that he and many of his elderly neighbors feel.

Contractor woes

"In the past, seniors have hired contractors who have run roughshod over them, taken their limited funds, and hoodwinked them," he says. He once paid someone to fix his porch, only to discover that the man used the money for drugs instead.

Now, Alleyne meets weekly with a construction consultant hired by the city to watch over the process and help make decisions if anything unexpected comes up. When neighbors come by and comment on how nice the place is looking, Alleyne encourages them to do their own renovations.

To spread the word, Nuestra Comunidad has enlisted everyone from postal workers to Meals-on-Wheels volunteers. Winn says he underestimated how challenging it would be to overcome the seniors' hesitation to become landlords again.

But people are comforted when they hear about the property-management operation, which employs neighborhood residents as part of the organization's broader community-development goals.

It's clear that Alleyne is one of those cornerstone figures that no community would want to lose. As he shows some visitors his house, he points out its early history before his time there - describing how it was built by Irish brick masons, and later occupied by Jewish immigrants.

He's not sure if he bought the house just before or just after the assassination of Martin Luther King. But he does remember "there were riots on Blue Hill Avenue," the street just outside his window.

Now he beams with pride and his chin juts up over his paisley bow tie as he explains that in that same spot, there's now a mall that he and fellow residents spent 14 years working to develop.

When Alleyne had to board up his house, it wasn't hard to find relatives or neighbors to stay with, considering how many of them had lived at his place at one point or another. But he's eager to be coming home. And he's glad that two new families will be able to call it home, too.

After all, he says, "if you don't stabilize the community, there will be no one to shop at the mall."

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