Nightmare on Upton Street
For those on the outside, it’s an issue that seems to embody the supposed direction of the "new" South End, toward becoming a neighborhood for an exclusive, entitled and predominantly white upwardly mobile class.
For those on the inside, it’s a genuine concern about the potential impact on their tiny street that triggered a coup in the local neighborhood association.
Either way, the Pine Street Inn’s plan to install supported permanent housing for formerly homeless individuals in three row homes on Upton Street has sparked controversy that has echoed through the blogosphere and over backyard fences, in parks and in shops, in the mainstream media and the rumor mill. But precisely what is happening on Upton Street hasn’t been entirely clear.
The three row homes in question are currently owned by Hope House, a treatment facility for men in recovery from addiction. The nonprofit has been on the street for more than 25 years, housing up to 70 men at a time. The men stay in the facility for about six weeks at a stretch, during which time their activities are closely monitored and they are supported through the process of getting sober. (Hope House executive director Tom Duffly did not return a call for comment on this story.)
Last year, Hope House decided to sell the three properties, at 38, 40 and 42 Upton Street, and two others it owns in the immediate neighborhood, and move to a larger location in Roxbury. Hope House turned to the Pine Street Inn and offered the homeless shelter the chance to use the three homes as supported permanent housing for their clients. On June 12, 2007, Pine Street and Hope House presented their proposal to the Union Park Neighborhood Association (UPNA).
Immediately, the residents of tiny Upton Street were concerned. Even before that June meeting, the residents had caught wind of the plans and began speaking with their newly elected city councilor, Bill Linehan, about it, he said.
"It was the first meeting that I had when I got elected," Linehan said. Linehan has been working with the residents and with Pine Street to "bring as much clarity to the issue" and "to give as much information to people as possible," he said.
"The people who live on that street feel very strongly about three townhouses being renovated for transitional housing for the homeless, it just seems a little much," said Linehan. "I think the folks that live on Upton Street want their street as good as it can be. They don’t see that sort of housing as a detriment, but it’s probably the amount, how much of that housing is really the issue."
How much housing is part of the issue, residents of the street say. Norm Knickle, an Upton Street resident for more than three years and a member of the UPNA board, said that their primary concern is the actually the size of the proposed project. Knickle, who refers to the three row homes as a "complex," said that the three residential homes "will really define the street."
"The neighborhood will whole heartedly and with open arms welcome Pine Street to Upton Street," Knickle explained, "but we want from them some good faith that the kind of facility they’re going to be putting on Upton Street, which is a small residential street, is consistent with what they’ve been putting in on other small residential streets in the South End."
Jerry Frank, the president of the UPNA and a 20-year resident of Upton Street, said his primary concern was that the neighborhood hadn’t been consulted before the plan was formulated. "We certainly have some unanswered questions: We want to know what the city’s involvement is, we want to know about the financing of this, we want to know if there are backroom deals made, we want to know why we weren’t consulted," he said. "We want to know why Pine Street Inn persists in pushing here when they know the neighbors object."
Frank said that the neighborhood has changed over the last 20 years he’s lived here. "It was pretty seedy, there was lots of crime, petty crime ... I’ve swept up crack pipes until I was blue in the face, in the alley," he said. "We’ve cleaned human feces out of our doorways." The street isn’t the place for three buildings of rooming house residences anymore.
After the Pine Street presented their initial plan, more than 80 residents of the street signed a petition against the proposal, wrote letters to their elected officials, and generally made their concerns known. Over the next few months, members of the UPNA met with Pine Street representatives to discuss the plan. Ultimately, the issue became a divisive one for the association. On Jan. 8, the attending members of the neighborhood association voted out all but three members of the previous 15-member board; most of the members of the new board live on Upton Street, as do the three who remained from the previous board. Members of the new board said that the Pine Street Inn issue was not what resulted in the nearly complete changeover of the board; rather, some residents felt that members of the board were not listening to their concerns.
Still, concern over Pine Street’s plan was a significant issue in the neighborhood association. On the day the old board was voted out, the members of the neighborhood in attendance voted to accept a resolution to request that the Pine Street reduce the number of buildings from three to one. Once the new board was elected, their first act was to dissolve the original Pine Street liaison committee and form a new one.
In addition to contacting Linehan, Upton Street residents have also appealed to At-Large City Councilor Michael Flaherty. On Feb. 26, Flaherty submitted an order for a public hearing on the issue, which has not been scheduled yet.
"I recognize the importance of Pine Street’s mission and at the same time, the residents of Upton Street have voiced real concerns, therefore I have called for a hearing that will create a public dialogue and hopefully help everyone reach a consensus and try to move forward," Flaherty said Tuesday. At this point, he says, his role is "really kind of being a referee."
Frank, for one, says that the hearing will be when "all this stuff that has been going on behind closed doors will float to the top." He, like other residents who oppose the three row-house plan, says that the city is pushing this through. "For us, we find that this entire plan for our street was orchestrated by the city of Boston ... it was done in secrecy, intentionally or not, but it was done without the knowledge or input of the neighborhood," said Frank. Later, he said, "We’re going to find out how this happened, what the plans are ... we want to address the economics of this, although it’s really not our business."
Residents say they believe the city is involved because Pine Street told them. The minutes from the Feb. 12 board meeting of the UPNA show that members of the board met with representatives of Pine Street on Feb. 7 and that at that meeting, Pine Street "indicated the reason they were looking at Upton Street for a complex was because the Department of Neighborhood Development encourages them to do so."
Representatives of Pine Street said that the city has not been involved in negotiating the sale between Pine Street and Hope House. "My understanding is that this is a private sale, between two parties ... I don’t know about any politics behind the scenes," said Barbara Trevisan, Pine Street Inn’s communications director, adding that while the nonprofit does interact with the city and the Department of Neighborhood Development, she was not "aware of any major connection in that way."
Dot Joyce, spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office, said Wednesday that "the involvement of the city is the involvement that the city has on most projects" - facilitating conversations between Pine Street and the neighborhood to discuss ways Pine Street "could mitigate any potential impacts" of the proposed project.
As far as any further or unusual involvement, Joyce said there has been none. "The city supports the Pine Street Inn and their move there," she said. "The South End has always been a neighborhood that welcomed everyone and was actually built on that it was accepting of everyone and welcoming to everyone and for the Pine Street to preserve affordable housing in this neighborhood, the city is in support of that."
The Department of Neighborhood Development did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Not everyone in the neighborhood opposes Pine Street’s plan. Harriet Finkelstein, who lives on the corner of Tremont and Upton streets, says that she supports the Pine Street because she believes in diversity.
Moreover, she said, "We are not dealing with the people who are walking into the shelter, who have the cheap wine in the brown paper bag. These are people who have gone through the Pine Street’s programs, who have straightened themselves out and who have conquered their substance abuse issues. They have done everything society has asked of them and the one thing they’re asking us to do is to give them a roof over their heads and I think it is unconscionable not to do that."
Finkelstein, who is organizing a committee to welcome the residents of the housing when they move in, believes opposition to the plan "stems from a lack of information. These are people who have opposed this from the get go, without even taking the time."
"When this issue first surfaced, the neighborhood had a lot of questions to ask the Pine Street, some legitimate concerns. We compiled all of the questions that the neighborhood asked, sent them over to Pine Street," said Finkelstein, also a former member of the UPNA board. "Pine Street answered each and every one of those questions ... A number of the new Union Park Neighborhood Association people do not believe the answers that Pine Street gave them."
Pine Street is certainly experienced when it comes to installing supported housing in residential areas. The Pine Street Inn currently houses around 400 residents in this kind of single occupancy permanent housing, called Paul Sullivan housing, in 24 buildings across Boston and Brookline. Three of those properties are located in the South End: At 300 Shawmut Ave., in a brownstone with 16 units of housing; at 40 East Springfield St., another brownstone with nine units; and at 1740 Washington St., an apartment building with 34 units of housing.
"This has been something that has worked well for decades, we find it’s a great model for people," said Jan Griffin, a project manager for Pine Street. "We’re really about moving people beyond homelessness into permanent housing."
The Upton Street site, with three buildings, is larger than the two other buildings in similar locations in the neighborhood. The plan as of now, would have 36 residents and one live-in case manager housed in the three row homes. The buildings, which would require some renovation, would be split into 12 units in each, sharing a common room and kitchen. A live-in case manager would have a studio apartment in one of the buildings. The current proposal is significantly less than the Hope House, which had maintained at least 60 residents at a time, had been housing and less than the Pine Street had initially proposed.
As to the UPNA’s request that the housing be reduced to only one building on Upton Street, Trevisan said, "Right now, we’re talking about three, that’s what the proposal is ... that’s what’s on the table."
Trevisan also said that the deal has not has been finalized yet.
"We’re just in the due diligence phase," Trevisan said. Hope House hasn’t yet completed its new building in Roxbury and that some renovations would have to be done on the buildings before the Pine Street could move in, she said, "so it’s not going to be any time soon."
Trevisan and other Pine Street representatives also confirmed that no changes to the existing zoning regulations for the property would be necessary, because they would be operating the facility in the same capacity - as a rooming house - that Hope House had been.
Residents who would live in the Pine Street’s permanent housing will be screened for CORI (Criminal Offense Record Information) and SORI (Sexual Offense Record Information). Levels two and three sex offenders will not be allowed to live in the building; level one sex offenders, information about whom is not public and whose offenses can include public urination, will be allowed. Individuals with other criminal offenses in their past will be permitted on a case by case basis; Pine Street will assess the nature of the crime, take into account how long ago it was committed, and determine the individual’s progress since the time of the crime.
Alicia Ianiere, Pine Street’s vice president for development and external affairs, said that some Upton Street residents would have part-time jobs, while others would be living on disability income. Residents pay 30 percent of their income in rent to Pine Street, no matter what that is; most residents, she said, have an annual income of around $9000.
A third of the residents of Pine Street’s permanent housing have lived there for more than five years; 12 percent of the individuals living in permanent housing in 2007 moved on to other housing, while only 2 percent fell back into homelessness, Ianiere said.
"It’s a very stable population," she said.
Pine Street says that the people who will be living in the homes are low-income, formerly homeless individuals who have made a commitment to getting out of the shelter - people like Joe Lynch, a resident of Pine Street’s housing at 300 Shawmut Ave. Lynch has lived in his basement room - with a refrigerator full of Spam, among other possessions - since the building opened in 1989. A funny, charming man in a Red Sox cap who walks with a cane and spends his days at the Ellis Senior Center, he is representative of the people who would be living on Upton Street, Trevisan said.
Meeting with the South End News at the Ellis Center, Lynch said that he loves living at 300 Shawmut Ave. Asked where he would be if he didn’t live there, Lynch said, "That’s a good question. At the present, I’m afraid I can’t answer that. I’m just glad that I am where I am."
Lynch was born in Monroe, La., in 1931, the oldest of 19 children ("The doctor told my father, ’You’re going to have to sleep in the next room,’" he laughed). He left school after the second grade, he said, because he had to work in his family’s corn and cotton fields. In the years that followed, Lynch wandered from state to state - living in Chicago, doing migrant fruit picking work in Michigan and Florida, or holding construction and dishwashing jobs.
By the late 1950s, Lynch said he had migrated up to Boston, working odd jobs, living on the streets. He first came to Pine Street in the 1980s, when he began working in the clothing distribution center at the old location in Chinatown. At that time, he said, he was "on the bottle." "During that time I was drinking, I didn’t have no footing," he said.
Lynch said the staff at Pine Street sent him to Bridgewater State Hospital to sober up and got him into permanent housing, 17 years ago. "They finally straightened me out ... they did a lot of work and I appreciate it," he said.
"I tell you the truth about the whole situation," he continued, "I’ve been happy ever since, because I found a home here."
Knickle and Frank emphatically say that the population of Pine Street is not what concerns them. Both brought up the supervision of the individuals living at the property. Explaining the difference between the Hope House’s transitional housing and the Pine Street Inn’s permanent housing, Frank said that Hope House maintained "high levels of supervision" and that "what they’re [Pine Street] proposing now is permanent housing with minimal supervision."
"It’s different," he continued. "All of the new people there have leases and if you ever have the misfortune of becoming a property owner and have a problematic tenant, it’s difficult."
Knickle said, "What they’re proposing on supervision is something around one-quarter of what they have in other places in the South End."
In response, Trevisan said, "What do they mean by supervise? Most of these folks are quiet people, they keep to themselves ... These are just people trying to live their lives, they’re not involved in any criminal activity."
Living in the building comes with its own regulations. All of the housing, for example, is drug and alcohol free and guests are required to sign in. Residents are expected to follow and respect rules of the house, and to respect the neighborhood. Pine Street rarely has complaints about the residents of their housing, Trevisan said, and a search of the South End News police report record found only one recent incident at the 300 Shawmut Ave. location, when someone broke in to the building. In a letter to Meghan Haggerty of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, copied to the South End News, the Pine Street Inn and several city councilors, a resident of East Springfield Street said that she’s lived across from the Pine Street’s housing for years and whole heartedly supports the Pine Street’s plan.
Knickle said at one point he thought that the Upton Street housing would serve as overflow housing for the Pine Street Inn shelter, which accepts almost anyone who walks through the door. "They [Pine Street] told us they would be coming from the shelter, because they’ve got too many people in the shelter and they want to move them out," he said.
Pine Street officials, however, were emphatic that the residents of the permanent housing would not be "overflow" from the shelter, but would be carefully screened individuals ready for permanent housing.
In recent months, the residents of Upton Street have weathered criticism that they are simply worried about their property values, guilty of NIMBY-ism, or worse, discrimination. Frank and Knickle deny that their opposition to the three-building plan is motivated by any of those reasons.
"They’re going to say that and they have said that and it’s always people who are not affected by it," Frank said, noting that as a retiree who’s not planning on moving any time soon, he personally is not concerned about his property values.
"I don’t think we can avoid criticism," he said later, "but I think when we’re given the chance to present our case, I think people will understand."
Knickle also said that any opposition to the project has nothing to do with the formerly homeless people who would be moving in. "I’ve never heard anyone say that we don’t want this particular person on our street. We have heard that we want families to move in and stay," he said. "I’ve never heard someone say we don’t want a particular type of person on the street, ever."
Ultimately, both the residents of the street and the homeless shelter seem to be willing to talk over their issues, and some of the conversation may occur at the upcoming but unscheduled city council hearing.
"Their [Pine Street’s] attitude is ’We know you don’t like it, but we’re coming, we don’t give a damn,’ and we’re saying, ’Please, let us work with you,’" Frank said.
Ianiere said that the Pine Street has been in continued discussions with the neighborhood association and that they invited residents of the neighborhood to come and visit their other South End properties, an invitation that several residents accepted. Griffin said that the Pine Street has made a commitment to be good neighbors and communicate with the neighborhood.
"Our commitment is to answer every possible question that people might have about the Paul Sullivan housing model and how our housing operates," she said.