GRASS ROOTS Michael Kane of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants helped Rutland residents
(left to right: Gloria Rosario, Esther Echevarria, and Dorothy Guice) to form their own organization and
fight to keep affordable housing — and diversity — in the South End.
Esther Echevarria worked as an activist before coming to Boston. In her native Puerto Rico she fought to fund education programs for special-needs students, even organizing protests in front of La Fortaleza, the governor's mansion in San Juan.
"I have a deaf daughter, so it was a personal issue for me," said Echevarria. "If I have to, I will fight for rights — for anybody's."
After arriving in Boston and moving into Rutland Housing, a low-income housing development in the South End, she thought that her career as an activist was over.
That was, until she and her fellow tenants were notified that their affordable housing was about to become a lot less affordable. Forty years before, when Rutland Housing was built, its owners signed a federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 contract, agreeing to maintain affordable apartments for eligible tenants in lieu of the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). That contract expired May 31 of this year, leaving the owners free to raise rents to better reflect maket values — which they did, by an average of $500 per apartment.
"For me, it's very scary," said Dorothy Guice, who has lived at Rutland Housing for over 33 years. "I feel like [these tenants] are my family, and it's morally wrong that the people with money can just step over the little people."
Rutland Housing is just one of more than 900 such privately owned, low-income developments across Massachusetts, incorporated in the '70s and '80s as a short-term, cost-effective solution for public housing. Today, they are ticking time bombs in gentrifying neighborhoods like the South End, as the low-income contracts run out one by one.
What's more, as these affordable-housing developments turn into regular developments, they're not being replaced.
"The need for affordable housing has grown substantially, but the supply has not kept pace with that demand," said Rhonda Siciliano, a spokesperson for HUD's regional office in Boston.
After the Parkers raised rents, HUD and the BHA issued eligible Rutland tenants special "enhanced vouchers" to make up the difference. Although this aid allows the current 44 families to remain at Rutland Housing for this year, it's a precarious fix for tenants. Enhanced vouchers, like many welfare programs, are easy targets for a budget-strapped Congress.
And a Republican victory in November could send HUD programs to the chopping block. This past spring, Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, proposed major reductions to HUD's budget for the 2013 fiscal year. On the campaign trail, Romney has even proposed eliminating HUD altogether.
Even if the voucher program remains intact, tenants could be forced out of their homes if the owners, David and Karen Parker, choose to convert their apartments to condominiums. The Parkers have expressed no intention of moving away from rentals, but also haven't ruled out the option.
"If [the current tenants] want to be there for 40 years, they can," said David Parker. But when the units open up, he said, "I want to have some choice."