Bad situation turned into affordable coop

John Swan

Gazette Photo By John Swan
Neighbors Beverly Demetius (left) and Sonji Justice congratulate members of the Rockvale Circle Cooperative as board member Norma Porter looks on during a ceremony June 9 to transfer ownership of five three-deckers from the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation to co-op members.

PARKSIDE—A seven-year odyssey came to an end this month as the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) turned over five renovated three-deckers, once the bane of the street, to the 15 families that make up the Rockvale Circle Cooperative.

“This is a tremendous victory for residents who have suffered unbelievable conditions,” said JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal during a ceremony on the small cul-de-sac off Washington Street June 9.

Their journey began in 2000 when residents who were fed up with conditions on the street and threats of eviction contacted the local tenants’ group City Life/Vida Urbana. At that time Rockvale Circle, nicknamed “La Paleta” (The Lollipop) for its flourishing drug trade, was one of the most notorious streets in Boston.

“It was a horrible situation, “ said former City Life Director Kathy Brown. “There was raw sewage in the basements. But the rents were low, and for the people there, it was all they could afford.”

Norma Porter, a board member of the coop, remembered, “At one point, we even had to get our water through hoses connected to neighbors’ faucets, because the landlord [of the five buildings] had stopped paying water bills.”

Brown recalled the frustration she felt as City Life negotiated with the city to keep the tenants’ water on, while the absentee owner “who had a $200,000 water bill” benefited.

Neighbor Beverly Demetrius, who has owned a house there for 18 years, raising two now-grown sons with her husband, said, “There was a lot of traffic in and out since 1989, a lot of drug activity and it was a very unsafe place for kids. We couldn’t let them out to play.”

By 2000, she said, people in the five three-deckers were without heat and hot water because “the slumlord was behind in taxes and utilities.”

“Our building was really bad. We had no lights or gas one summer,” said Luz Baez, who moved to Rockvale seven years ago as a teenager and now lives there as a coop member with her husband and 4-year-old son.

An operating room technician planning to graduate as a doctor in two years, she went on to say, “There were a lot of drugs sold inside. Every night when I came home, the front door was never locked. I’d find six or seven kids smoking and drinking in the hallway. In the morning I’d try to get up early to go to school and work so I didn’t have to talk to anyone.”

Sonja Justice, a neighbor on the street since 2000, said, “A week after I moved in the cops came early one morning and ordered everyone out of the five houses. But a week later [the tenants] came back to fight to stay here. We all finally met with city officials at English High School and made a deal for the tenants to stay.”

When the city foreclosed on the properties “We quickly put out a RFP (request for proposals) and turned it around to the JPNDC [in an open bidding process in 2001] because we were worried the owner would try to redeem his interest in it,” said Charlotte Golar-Richie, head of the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development, during an interview last week.

While the JPNDC raised money and renovated the five buildings, tenants had to relocated. “It took almost a year to come back,” said Baez, one of five remaining original families to qualify and decide to join the coop. During that time the JPNDC helped residents form the Rockvale Crime Watch that was instrumental in the arrest of three major drug dealers on the street.

In 2002, the JPNDC completed construction and has provided coop members with leadership and management training leading up to the transfer of ownership. Thal said after they officially passed papers that his agency would continue to support the coop with training and coordination through an umbrella group of leaders from five coops the JPNDC has developed.

“This is a great thing,” said Justice, who owns a unit in the Brush Hill Condos on the street and remembers, “fights in the street and dogs running loose. Now the sound of children playing is music to my ears. It’s especially nice because the project took on a real human quality, focusing on affordable housing that works. And guess what? The property values didn’t go down.”

Brown said projects like Rockvale Circle Coops disprove fears affordable housing brings down the value of a community. “Look around. It’s so dramatically improved with more people invested, it’s really added value to the whole neighborhood.”

“This has become a very friendly neighborhood,” said Demetrius. “I’m glad to see affordable housing taken to the next level, where owners take more interest and are more apt to say something if the see something that’s wrong.”

“I certainly feel different being a homeowner, more responsible,” confirmed Baez.

Demetrius went on to say her only complaints now are a lack of a crime watch and street sweeping signage and the need for commercial properties at the beginning of the street to take care of trash and weeds that entice rats to the area.

Brown and NDC staffers touted cooperatives as an attractive alternative to renting and owning. Coop members do not own their units, they own shares of the coop and participate in its management. Shares in limited equity coops like Rockvale are kept permanently affordable.

“All I can say is that I’m very happy,” said first-time owner Kenrick Subadar, who works with his wife at Massachusetts General Hospital, has two teenage daughters at English High and is the vice-president of the coop board.

“We’ve been here over two years and find the neighborhood very safe and neighbors always cooperative. Everyone’s willing to help out. I plan to stay here for a long time, could be the rest of my life,” he said with a smile.

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