Confessions of a Lottery Winner
Bruce Dillenbeck December 2002 A Sunday morning in late March. A dark and dreary day. The time of year when the oppressiveness of winter hangs heavy on your soul. My friend, who also happened to be my landlord, was reading the Jamaica Plain Gazette while I was reading the Boston Globe. Even the news was oppressive. The funnies weren’t funny. April was nigh, holding forth with the promise of regeneration but then again, April is the cruelest month. My friend asked me if I had seen the notice in the Jamaica Plain Gazette, advertising a housing lottery for affordable units in a condominium project that was under construction in Boston’s South End. I had not. The use of lotteries is a common practice to allocate units in developments that are built by community non-profits or private developers and receiving some form of public subsidies. The property in question, Wilkes Passage, a 155-unit condominium project, was being constructed on land formerly held in ownership by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Wilkes Passage is located on the lower end of the Washington Street corridor that leads into Chinatown and the New England Medical Center. Location of Wilkes Passage, South End Boston
I had not seen the notice in the Gazette but on a whim, completed an application not expecting anything to come of it. I had nothing to lose. My friend was planning on selling the condo that my roommate and I resided at in a little over a year. I was paying a below market rent. I would soon be faced with the stark reality of looking for a new place in what was fast becoming the most expensive housing market for rental properties in the country. The Jamaica Plain I had come to love, and had resided almost continuously since 1988, was experiencing the same astronomical rise in rents as other Boston neighborhoods and surrounding communities. My fat city was nearing an end. My benefactor was cashing in his chips and I would have to abandon ship. Barring divine intervention, I had come to the conclusion that I would either look for a place outside the Boston metro region or move to another part of the country. Maybe Waco, Texas.
I dropped my application off at the Wilkes Passage sales office. I would have to wait one week before the results would be reported. Lotteries will typically draw a thousand plus applicants so my expectations were low. Most lotteries work by a ranking process. Although anyone can submit an application, preference is usually given to those who meet certain criteria. In this instance, preference was given to those who were: 1) current residents of Boston, 2) artists living in the South End, 3) South End residents previously displaced by urban renewal. Half of the units were being allocated to artists. I was told only 400 people had submitted applications. My odds had dramatically improved. What I at first thought was a long shot became a real possibility. As I had some time to kill, I decided to research the history of Boston’s South End. At one time, Washington Street was just a slender slice of land connecting the peninsula of Boston to the mainland. In the 1840s, after marshes on either side of the isthmus were filled in to become today’s South End, the neighborhood experienced a brief but albeit period of prosperity. By the end of the 19th century it began its long, slow descent into poverty and decrepitude. As its stately row houses were converted into lodging houses, the neighborhood became home to Boston’s burgeoning immigrant population. By the midtwentieth century, the South End was a former shadow of itself having suffered from neglect, arson and wholesale demolition. By the mid-seventies, one-quarter of the original buildings had been destroyed. The mid-sixties saw the first signs of renewal as urban homesteaders began to renovate once derelict properties. In 1973, the South End was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the largest urban Victorian neighborhood in the country. A decade later, Boston’s Landmark Commission designated the neighborhood as a landmark district. This acted to preserve its character and enhance its value. The South End had been discovered just as Columbus had discovered America. The only problem was that the South End was already occupied. Washington Street had been a no mans land for quite some time but had lain dormant with promise since the old elevated Orange Line T had been torn down in mid-eighties.. Much of the land along the Washington Street corridor was held in city ownership but was not marketable until real estate values began to recover from the crash of the late eighties, early nineties. The city was looking to jump start development in what was now valuable land adjacent to one of the hottest housing markets in Boston. Today, the South End is experiencing a building boom. $2 billion worth of investment in residential, commercial, and institutional projects are planned or underway.. The BRA lists 19 projects as either under review, approved or under construction. Along the Washington Street corridor, the city and state are complementing this private investment by pouring over $50 million into street renovations and infrastructure for the Silver Line, which began service this fall.
View of South End (Looking toward Prudential Building)
Wilkes Passage was being developed by Edward A. Fish and Associates, one the
larger real estate development firms in the Boston metro area, having completed projects in excess of $1 billion to date. The BRA sold the land to Fish and Associates significantly below its true market value. It probably didn’t hurt that Edward Fish is a generous Menino campaign contributor. In return for building beyond allowable zoning limits, the developer agreed to set aside 19 units as affordable rate housing - residents who fell above 50% and below 120% of the city’s household median income. Wilkes Passage was not the only project being developed in a similar manner in proximity to the Washington Street corridor. Critics accused the mayor of selling the land on the cheap and promoting development that quickened gentrification pressures in the South End. But I digress. I waited apprehensively. I logged onto to the Wilkes Passage web site as soon as the results were posted. I had been on a losing streak for quite a few years and by nature I’m a pessimist. To my disbelief I drew a low number. After ranking by preference, I was number 19. As I don’t believe in divine intervention, I considered myself plain lucky for once. But as I was to learn, I had surmounted only the first of many obstacles to come. Just because I drew a low number, did not automatically mean I was in. Given my profile (income ranking and non-artist) there were only two units priced from which I could pick from. Condos were available at different prices depending upon which income group you fell into to. There were three tiers: 1) applicants whose household median income fell between 50-80 percent of the Boston median, 2) 80100 percent of median income, and 3) 100-120% percent of median income. As I fell into the bottom tier, I had to choose a unit priced within my income tier. I could potentially be competing with others for the same two units. Theoretically it was possible that others with a similar profile might pick those two units. A meeting of the top lottery winners was to be held in one week. There we would choose off and fight. The meeting was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. I was late getting out of work. I walked at a brisk pace from my downtown office to the sales office. By the time I got there, I was drenched in sweat. The crowd was larger than I anticipated. The room was filled to capacity and the tension was palpable. Everyone was a potential competitor. As I write this six months later, it is not entirely clear to me how names were being called that night, but my name was called early on. The person ahead of me had picked one of the two units for which I was eligible. My decision had was made for me. After completing some additional paperwork and leaving a $1,000 deposit, I walked out into the evenings twilight. Everything felt surreal to me. I was potentially purchasing a one-bedroom, 800 sq. ft. condominium in a luxury loft-styled building in Boston’s South End for $115,000. To put this into perspective, market rate units started at $377,000. The luxury penthouse was selling for $1.3 million. I was living the Cinderfella story. The following is a description of the building as written by Peabody Properties, the marketing agents for Wilkes Passage. This new, seven-story contemporary building will offer one hundred and fifty five loft-style condominium homes. Complemented by two levels of underground parking, owning a Wilkes Passage Loft Parking Space will make the search for a prime city spot a thing of the past...Many homes feature decks that offer stunning cityscape and Back Back views. Some homes have outdoor patios - perfect for that end of the day relaxing retreat. We invite you to be part of the exciting Washington Street rebirth. As a Wilkes Passage Loft homeowner, you will truly...celebrate life, celebrate living, celebrate your new lifestyle.
What more could I ask for? Not only would I have the peace of mind that comes with homeownership, a place of my own after years of living with roommates but I would no longer be held hostage to a volatile
Boston housing market. And my life, no, my lifestyle would be transformed. Homeownership would restore my self pride, improve my sex life, and give me a favorable tax deduction to boot. Homeownership is the birthright of every true blooded American and I would no longer be an outcast, a misfit in a world that measures one’s self worth by their take home income and investment portfolio. But like everything else in life, appearances are not always what they seem. Architects Sketch
One irony in this tale I tell, is that I work for an agency that administers a first time homebuyers program, but could not afford to purchase a home on my own. I had put home ownership out of my mind as an impossible dream - at least not in today’s Boston housing market. I would be perfectly happy living my life as a renter if the market provided affordable, well-built housing in a safe, stable neighborhood, something that most European countries provide as a matter of course. In America this appears to be beyond the ability of our so called democratic institutions to deliver, in the same manner that national health insurance and income security for workers is considered a birthright of European citizens. On the other hand, our elected leaders are falling all over one another to hand out generous tax deductions for the wealthy. I know what you are thinking. What kind of sour grapes is this for a guy who just hit the mother lode of all jackpots. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not stupid. I know a good deal when I see one but it’s not about to cloud my critical faculties. But I digress. I had not yet crossed the finish line. I still had a number of hurdles to surmount to reached the promised land. In one week I had to sign a purchase and sale agreement. In the interim, I had to get pre-qualified by a lender and hire a lawyer. Being in the business, so to speak, I had a leg up on any competition and was positioned to navigate the labyrinth one confronts in the homebuying process. Many lottery winners fall out of the running because they don’t have the necessary down payment or can’t surmount all the hurdles they confront along the way. I met with a loan officer the following day and secured a letter of prequalification (i.e. - a letter stating that I had the financial ability to purchase the unit in question). In order to secure a loan however, I would most likely have to sell my beloved Toyota Celica, which I had purchased six months earlier. It was adding to my overall debt burden along with my student loan, which I have been paying back for most of my adult life. I would have to sacrifice my Toyota for the greater good and in the language of the banking industry lower my back end ratio. It was a difficult decision. A condo in the South End or my beloved Toyota Celica.
To most people it would seem like a no brainer. My Celica was the first car I owned in my life that wasn’t a junk mobile on wheels. I had hungered after that Celica for years and giving it up was like giving up your favorite mistress. On the other hand, parking in the South End is a horror story and I couldn’t afford the $50,000 price tag to purchase a parking space at Wilkes Passage. I can almost hear the collective sigh of disbelief of those of you who are reading this. “That must be a typo,” you are thinking to yourself. Or, perhaps, you are thinking you need corrective lenses. Although I am known for my vivid imagination, even I couldn’t create a fiction as outlandish as the current asking price for a parking space in Wilkes Passage. In the South End, resident stickered cars outnumber available parking spaces by a ratio of three to one. It doesn’t take a degree in calculus to grasp the reality of what that means. $50,000 is the going rate for the “condominiumization” of car spaces in today’s South End. Wilkes Passage had built additional parking spaces that were set aside for South End residents. They were sold almost immediately. If you’re interested. Too bad. There is already a long waiting list. There are new developments being built up and down along the new South End and they to are selling parking spaces. Some spaces are being purchased as speculative investments and leased to others. Today we face not only a widening inequality of income but a growing inequality of access to parking spaces. It is a Hobbesian war against all for the holy grail of a parking space. The problem is a surge in car ownership. During the last decade, according to the 2000 census, the city’s population increased by three percent while the number of cars increased by 36 percent. What we need is some form of birth control for automobiles. Perhaps Boston should follow China’s one baby policy, that is, it should mandate that each family be limited to one car. If this is politically unfeasible than I suggest a more palatable solution. A certain percentage of private parking spaces should be made affordable and allocated by lottery. Three days before I am ready to sign my P&S, I learn that I have to come up with the required 3% deposit - or another $2,500. No one had bothered to mention this small detail to me. It didn’t occur to me that I’d have to come up with the down payment prior to closing. I had the money but it was not immediately accessible. I was planning on drawing down funds from my retirement account. I contact a representative from my retirement account but he tells me it will take at least five days for the check to reach me. I to into panic mode. My second crisis. Depending upon one’s personality, people react to stress in one of the following three ways. The first group calmly assesses the situation and divines a solution. The second group panics and exhibit symptoms that include, but are not limited to: 1) babbling incoherently, 2) questioning the existence of God, and 3) constipation. Yet, in the end they manage a solution. The third group are like deer who stand frozen in the headlights of a fast approaching car, unable to act, passively waiting for what some might call the big sleep. They are unable to navigate life’s shoals and are swept into oblivion. When shit happens, some call it fate, some call it the will of God. I call it by its name - shit. Luckily, I fall into the second of the afore mentioned three groups.
I walk up and down the corridors at work flailing my arms about and cursing the hand of fate that had once again rained down on me like the plague dogs of hell. My co-worker, noticing my agitation, assesses my situation and suggests that I ask for a temporary loan from our employer. As the mission of the agency I work for is ostensibly to promote home ownership, they generously agree. Several days later I sign my P&S. I think I am home free. Not by a long shot. My next obstacle is obtaining loan approval. My loan officer suggests that I utilize a first time homebuyers program that had been developed by a nation wide community organization that shall remain unnamed. They offered a special mortgage product that was structured to lower a borrower’s monthly mortgage payment. The bank I am working with participates in their program in order to meet the mandate of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) - more about that in a moment. I waste the next two months working with the community organization that shall remain unnamed, responding to one information request after another, finally giving up in frustration after realizing they would not approve my loan application. The organization in question had done admirable work over time to make lenders responsive to the credit needs of low income and minority city residents who had historically been denied access through a practice known as redlining. When the Community Reinvestment Act was passed by Congress in the late seventies, community organizations had a tool to hold banks accountable. At first, most banks huffed and puffed and complained they were not in the business of social work. Others claimed CRA was state socialism. After years of community activists prodding and pushing, they eventually got on the band wagon. Today, many major banks are working in partnership with government and community development corporations in inner city neighborhoods across the U.S. to make home ownership a possibility for those of modest means. Lenders found religion when they discovered profits can be derived even in the poorest of American communities. Some now claim they embraced CRA right from the start. But I digress. While the community organization that remains unnamed has done yeoman’s work in the area of advocacy, their performance in the area of program administration is less than to be desired. I found myself two months down the road, nearing the deadline to have a loan commitment in hand, and the program administrator was dithering around with my loan application. My third crisis. By this time I am suffering from nervous exhaustion and sleep deprivation brought on by insomnia. I find myself walking the corridors of work babbling to myself like the Mad Hatter. I am constantly harassing my loan officer for news and bemoaning the fact that I had ever been born. Even after the intercession of a friendly loan underwriter working for the bank, I am left in limbo. After two months of frustration, my loan officer suggests that I utilize his bank’s first time homebuyers program. While the interest rate isn’t as favorable, the bank’s program has similar cost saving incentives as the community organization that shall remain unnamed. In the interim, I have a chance to inspect my unit along with other lottery winners while the building is still under construction. It is difficult to imagine that the shell of a building I am looking at will be ready for occupancy at the end of Summer. A dozen of us walk through lofts of different sizes and configurations. The appeal of lofts is that they allow one to design their living space. Except for the bedrooms and bathrooms there are no dividing walls. The bedroom, which is slightly elevated from the floor, has an eight-foot wide opening rather than a door. Its inner walls do not meet the ceiling. Because of the U-shaped configuration of the building the majority of units have only one exposure to the outside. Oversize windows are constructed to increase the available sunlight available too interior of loft.
The first thing that strikes me, as I enter my unit, is the concrete pillar that is almost dead smack in the middle of my living room / kitchen. I don’t know what to make of it. My inbred paranoia tells me that the architects were instructed to strategically locate the affordable units in those places where the building’s supporting beams cut through more of the affordable than market rate condos. As I don’t know which of the building’s units are designated as affordable this remains an untested thesis. I invite any enterprising architectural students out there to test my hypothesis.
Front View of Wilkes Passage (Washington Street)
When I first went to the Wilkes Passage web site and read about the amenities that came with each loft I was stunned. Here are a few of the highlights. In the residence: hardwood flooring in platform bedroom, central heating and air conditioning, pre-wired telephone, cable television and high speed internet. In the bathrooms: marble tile floors and baseboard, maple finished vanity with granite countertop, whirlpool bathtub with marble tile tub/shower. In the kitchen: maple finish flat cabinetry with frosted glass panel upper cabinetry, granite chef’s island, convection oven, dishwasher, refrigerator, microwave and many other amenities I haven’t mentioned. I always tell my friends, when it looks too good to be true it usually isn’t. As I later learned, lottery winners would find themselves in a stripped down version of the real thing. Many features in the residence are similar but the kitchen and bathroom are dramatically different. I call it affordable minimalism. The kitchen and bathroom cabinetry are of the lowest possible grade as are the sink and toilet. The kitchen appliances are perfectly suitable but I didn’t appreciate what unfinished flooring meant until I later moved in. It means an extra expenditure of anywhere from two to eight thousand dollars if I want to put down flooring. Pre-wired telephone. Not really. Verizon hit me for a $90 fee for unfinished wiring. High speed internet. It hasn’t arrived in this neck of the woods yet. I accepted all of the above with good grace and blessed my fortunes, but I really thought the developers were truly being cheap when they didn’t install a bathroom cabinet, towel or toilet rack. Each of these items are additional expenses for those who can least afford it. I mention all of this not to begrudge my good fortune but for readers to understand what affordable units in a luxury housing complex means - a two-tiered class of amenities between market-rate and below market rate units. And did I mention that each affordable housing unit carries deed restrictions? Deed restrictions are an important concept in the world of affordable housing and common to many developments financed with government subsidies. One of the most important restrictions proscribes a property’s maximum resale price. The resale price is usually based on a formula that defines the annual percentage of appreciation. In BRA financed properties, the resale value is restricted to five percent of the purchase price for each year the property is held in ownership. When the unit is sold, it is sold to someone within the same income bracket as yourself at the time of purchase. This is a trade off one accepts for the opportunity to purchase a property priced below it true market value.
Architectural sketch of my unit
Philosophically I am in agreement with this resale restriction as it emphasizes an important component of housing. Housing as a utility (i.e. - shelter) rather than as an investment. Americans have historically viewed housing through this double lens and this has tremendous implications for social policy. If society views housing as a utility, as a basic human right, than the development and financing of housing would follow a radically different path. If society views housing primarily as an investment, as just another commodity, than social policy will follow another path. When housing is viewed as a commodity, it will experience all the vagaries of the market. Not only will you find wild fluctuations in the cost and availability of housing but you will produce a class of haves and have nots in the form of renters and owners. Even with the rate of home ownership at record levels, it has done little to change the basic inequality of wealth in America. In addition, neighborhoods and cities will experience long term instability as public and private investment fluctuates over time. Micro and regional housing markets will continue to swing back and forth between cycles of growth, decline, rebirth and gentrification. As I traveled through Europe as a college student, I kept wondering where each city hid its slums. With the exception of Great Britain, slums by and large do not exist in western Europe. During the last two decades, the federal government has largely abandoned its role as a producer of housing and abdicated that responsibility to the private sector. Until this social policy changes, there will continue to be an acute housing shortage in many areas of the country. But I digress. My last hurdle is to get my loan application approved by the deadline written into my P&S. The bank continues asking me for additional documentation. I will need to get special approval as my personal finances had been somewhat shaky years earlier, and because the debt from my student and auto loans are inflating my total debt-to-income ratio. Over the last several months, I have been attempting to sell my beloved Celica but without luck. Although I keep slashing the price steadily downward until it is priced below its blue book value, I still can’t find a willing buyer. I am panicking as I expect my loan application will get deep-sixed because I can’t unload my car. Fortunately my lawyer is able to get an extension on my loan approval. July is rapidly approaching and
we are about to experience one of the hottest summers in recent memory. As my emotional temperature continues to rise, so does the temperature in my apartment. My apartment is on the fourth floor of a triple decker and formerly an attic that had been converted to an accessory apartment. I do not have air conditioning. As Boston suffers through periodic bouts of heat waves, the temperature within my apartment reaches the temperature outside. I continue experiencing reoccurring bouts of insomnia. The lack of sleep, stress at work, and uncertainty regarding my loan approval, ware me down. I begin having fantasies of escape. I have a growing ambivalence regarding whether or not I want to continue living in Boston. After living in Boston for twelve years, the city has lost many of its charms that first drew me to it from New York City. Years of underemployment, escalating housing prices, lack of romantic success, a bad back, insane drivers, the weather, and a losing baseball team have taken their toll. If my loan application falls through, I am ready to pack up and move. I now have a substantial sum of money as I have been saving for my down payment over the last several months. All I need is the will. I am someone who has an obsession with numbers. I spend dozens of hours pouring through my Place Rated Almanac attempting to quantify the perfect city I should move to. Since I can not sleep at night, I have plenty of time to consider the alternatives. I record all the data in an Excel spreadsheet. I undertake a comparative analysis of 12 cities that stand out above the rest by measuring such variables as cost of living, unemployment rates, climate, cultural opportunities, crime, transportation and the number of sunny days in a year - Seattle very bad, Santa Fe good. If you don’t believe me, email me and I will forward you my spreadsheet. At the end of the day I know I want to move to New Orleans, not because it ranks at the top of my list but because it is the antithesis of Boston. I have traveled to New Orleans on multiple occasions. I love its music, its food, its multi-cultural influences, and most importantly you can find a decent, one-bedroom apartment in a safe neighborhood for $500 a month. I am not making this up. We have become jaded living in a city where the median price for a two-bedroom unit now goes for $1,700 a month. Where I want to be
I am also ambivalent about becoming a home owner. Home ownership means, among other things, that I have to assume adult responsibilities and I have been trying my very best to avoid that outcome for years. I am afraid I will metamorphose into a Republican. I have seen it happen to my peers. It is like watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I believe that once I become a man of wealth and position, I will side with the capitalists against the workers, homeowners against renters, and find myself taking out coffee from Starbucks rather than Dunkin Donuts. I admire Henry Thoreau’s philosophy of simple living although I don’t necessarily want to give up indoor plumbing. “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” sang Kris Kristofferson’s in Me and Bobby McGee. I fear that I will be owned by what I own. When you fear losing what you have, it changes your personality. It makes you risk averse. When I express my doubts to family and friends, they think I am hopelessly naive. Only my psychiatrist thinks I am sane.
The days pass from one to another and still no word. Because I am in the business, so to speak, I know who to call and how to push things along. I make friends with the underwriter who is handling my loan application, and keep hounding her from one day to the next. Phone calls, emails, psychic transmissions through the air. She calls me. She’s telling me it’s a close call. It’s those damn ratios again. My unsold Celica is threatening to nix the whole deal. She needs to verify my income with my employer. I am on the razor’s edge. My current income allowed me to choose from the lowest priced tier of affordable units. If my income was just a thousand dollars higher, I would have been bumped into the next income bracket and would have been required to choose from a higher priced unit. And there is no way the lender would have qualified me at a higher price. I am weeks away from receiving my annual pay raise and bonus, which would push me into the next income bracket. I fear that if my loan approval drags on indefinitely the BRA’s hounds will ferret me out and that will be the end of it. I finally hear back from her. “Why didn’t you tell me about your bonus from last year?” Oh. Right. My bonus from last year on top of my base pay puts me over the top. By mid July, with closings just a month away, I finally get the green light. I have a commitment letter in hand. And I don’t even have to sell my Celica as a condition of loan approval. I am too exhausted to feel euphoric. Like the long distance runner, I believe I have crossed the finished line. I can start planning my move and prepare for my life. Then comes crisis number four. My closing is scheduled for mid August. I hire a moving company. I send my change-of-address to the post office, contact utility companies, and advertise a yard sale. The week before my closing, my lawyer contacts me. She tells me that all closings are indefinitely postponed. The delay has something to do with an argument between one government bureaucracy and another. After speaking to a number of parties, I get the real story. Apparently the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) is bickering with the BRA over provisions contained within the BRA’s deed rider. And who is FNMA you’re asking? FNMA is a private corporation chartered by the federal government to establish a national secondary mortgage market. In a nutshell, FNMA sells notes to privates investors and utilizes the proceeds from those funds to purchases mortgages made by banks and savings and loans. This is done in order to free up capital so that lenders can make more loans. If you have a mortgage, it is likely that it was sold to FNMA or its brother Freddie Mac. It’s all in the family. One way to visualize this process is to think of a mortgage as a pig. FNMA is a butcher. It purchases all the pigs from the farmers, grinds them up into sausages and sells the sausages on the wholesale market. Got all that? There will be a pop quiz at the end of this article. And what does all this have to do with the condo I was about to purchase? FNMA will only purchase pigs, I mean mortgages, that adhere to their own underwriting standards. An underwriting standard means the pig is kosher. If you want to know what kosher means you’ll have to consult a real estate text book. The same thing is true for the BRA. The BRA’s deed restrictions have to be acceptable to FNMA. FNMA holds all the power. If a bank knows they can’t sell their mortgage to FNMA they might walk away and spoil the party for everyone. FNMA had for years agreed to the deed restrictions as written by the BRA but someone at FNMA wanted to renegotiate the rules of the game while in play. Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, these nameless government bureaucrats are playing God with other people’s lives. There are a number of lottery winners who have given notice to their landlords anticipating that they would be moving by the first of the month. Because of this delay, many are about to find themselves out on the street and homeless. All hell breaks loose.
My situation is not as dire. I am renting from my friend and my situation is fluid. However, I have to quickly backtrack and cancel all my plans that I had put into motion. My world is once again thrown into chaos. I do not know when I will be moving. Another lottery winner with whom I became friends has to put her possessions into temporary storage while crashing on the couches of her friends. Several of us, including my friend and our respective lawyers, begin to raise bloody hell. We start making phone calls to the BRA and the Mayor’s office in an attempt to apply political pressure on the feuding parties. I don’t pretend to know what transpired behind the scenes but my impression is that the Mayor’s office, fearing a public relations disaster, swiftly intervened to resolve the situation. The delay lasts two weeks. If the situation had not resolved itself, I was prepared to make a few discrete phone calls to the local press. I know the story I could peddle would make good copy and that none of the parties wanted to be portrayed in an unflattering light. It is the beginning of September. I can see light at the end of the tunnel. My dream is within reach. I have made it to the promised land. My cliches have run aground. I contact my lawyer to reschedule my closing. She tells me to contact the bank’s lawyer who tells me to contact Peabody’s (property management company) lawyer who tells me I should close within the week. A week comes and goes. No word. My friend closes on her condo. Others close. I contact my lawyer again. “When will I close?” She tells me to contact the bank’s lawyer who tells me to contact Peabody’s lawyer who tells me I should close within the week. It is mid September and I am still waiting. I am told the bank’s underwriter has not forwarded my papers to the bank’s attorney. Something to do with blah, blah, blah...... I am clueless as to why my closing is on hold when everyone else is closing. I am weighted down with uncertainty. My life is on hold again. One day after work, I walk from my downtown office to Wilkes Passage and stand outside looking in. There is a chill in the air. Fall is approaching. I can tell from the lighted interiors there are a fare number of units occupied. I am so close yet so far from my final destination. Although I have for all intents and purposes crossed the finish line, I feel like the condemned prisoner waiting for that phone call from the Governor. Life or death. My life as melodrama. The phone call comes. “How would September 13th work for you?” “Fine”, I say. “Any day, any time, anywhere.” I check my calendar. I am closing on Friday the 13th. I am moving into a building whose address is 1313. I am not superstitious, as my friends and colleagues will attest. But I can’t help thinking this is an omen. View from my new home I contact the movers. I contact the utility companies. I send my change-of-address to the post office. My closing is scheduled for noon. I take the afternoon off. The closing is to be held at Peabody Management’s office in Quincy. Although I work in the housing field, ironically I have never been to a closing. I spend the next hour signing one document after another. I have no idea what I am signing even though my lawyer dutifully explains each document. “And this is the document whereby will we collect your first born child in the event you fail to make payment on your mortgage.” OK. Sounds good to me. It is one big blur. I emerge into the light of day. It feels
anti-climatic. Six months after submitting an application for the lottery, I am ready to move into my new home. I know most of you are thinking, end of story. Fairy tales come true, they can happen to you. Or, as Tom Petty once wrote, “Even those losers, get lucky some time.” Forget it. My sunny disposition doesn’t allow for such glib thoughts to enter my head and there is still a coda to this story. I am already feeling nostalgic about Jamaica Plain. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life living in J.P. and I am leaving with mixed emotions. This is my first time living in a large building since the mideighties, when I was living in Brooklyn, New York. I was living in a rent stabilized apartment and my neighbors were more or less like myself - of modest means. In moving to the South End, I feel like I have moved to another country. Its not just that the South End has a predominantly urban character - J.P. is almost bucolic in comparison - but the population is a largely white, professional, and affluent. I live amongst the rich and the beautiful whose major pastime is eating out at the many chi-chi restaurants that populate the neighborhood. I live in a building with a handsome foyer, courtyard, roof deck, underground parking and concierge services. The concierge services provide a range of services - dry cleaning, limo service, catering, and dinner reservations. I can’t afford any of these services but it’s nice to know that they are available. I am stranger in a strange land. In a perfect world, I would have preferred living in my modest triple decker in Jamaica Plain, ordering out from the J.P. House of Pizza, capping it off with an ice cream cone from J.P. Licks, while taking my daily constitutionals around the pond. I am at heart a simple man. Ironically, many of the people moving to Jamaica Plain are renters displaced from the high housing costs of the South End. It’s a case of the rich displacing the lesser rich. Those being displaced from J.P. are moving to Roslindale and other nearby communities like West Roxbury. Even the poorest communities in Boston like Roxbury and parts of Dorchester are seeing an explosion in housing prices. It has been reported that Boston’s poorest are moving to such outer belt cities like Brockton and Lawrence. It’s a game of musical chairs and if you are one of the unlucky ones you may find yourself out on the street. I am unusual in that I am swimming against the tide. All along Washington Street, a number of major developments have either recently been completed or are nearing completion. In another year, the neighborhood will be completely transformed. Against this tidal surge of gentrification, there have been a few victories. In the mid-sixties, the South End was a largely Hispanic community. When the city utilized its power of eminent domain to acquire three acres or property adjacent to what is now Copley Place on Dartmouth Street, it razed existing housing and built a parking lot. Neighborhood residents successfully organized this outrage and in its place was built Tent City, a mixed income housing development. Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion (IBA) , a community development and social services organization went on to develop Villa Victoria, a community of some 900 families living in the development and neighboring apartment houses. Villa Victoria is located in the heart of the South End and is 72 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African American, and 10 percent Asian. It is one of the few remaining pockets of racial and economic diversity left within the South End. Luckily, I won’t feel completely alone. As I look outside my window, the Archdiocese of Boston is nearing completion of Rollins Square, 183 units of mixed income housing. It is the only project under construction within the South End where the majority of units are designated as rentals and condos for low and moderate income households. It will be good to have some neighbors I can ask out to the local Dunkin Donuts. Boston is a tale of two cities. It is fast becoming a city of the haves and the have nots with a shrinking middle class. If you are not poor enough to qualify for public or subsidized housing, or rent from a
landlord who still has a sense of social consciousness, the possibility of finding affordable housing is a fading dream. With the State in fiscal collapse and the feds fixing for a fight with Saddam Hussein, relief appears nowhere in sight. Within the last 14 months, the real estate industry has played a hand in defeating two modest initiatives designed to address the present housing crisis in Boston. The first, The Community Preservation Act, a ballot question developed by a coalition of housing advocates, asked voters to approve a modest increase in property taxes whose proceeds would have been utilized in part to construct affordable housing. The second, a Menino-based initiative would have created a special board to allow renters to appeal rent gouging by landlords. Both went down in flames. I am one of the lucky ones. My story has a happy ending. Fairy tales came come true...if you win the lottery.