Church Street South bombed a federal housing inspection, scoring just 26 points out of 100—while holding on to an estimated $3 million in federal money for the coming year.
The inspection took place at the 301-unit housing projects across from Union Station also known as “The Jungle.” Boston-based Northland Investment Corp., took over the complex several years ago with plans to tear it down and build a mixed-used development; conditions in the apartments have languished as redevelopment plans failed to materialize.
The federal Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which spends $3 million per year subsidizing the apartments through its Section 8 program, stopped in on the complex on Jan. 29 to conduct routine Real Estate Assessment Center inspections. The agency released the inspection results last week in response to a records request from the Independent.
HUD inspected 24 apartments. It identified 12 systemic problems and 11 “life-threatening” health and safety violations. Health and safety violations included exposed electrical wires; blocked emergency exits; mold; tripping hazards; sharp edges and a missing lock on a utility door. Inspectors also noted damaged hardware/locks on doors; cracked walls; peeling paint on the floors of stairs and hallways; missing seals on outside doors; missing, damaged or inoperable refrigerators; damaged walls; and windows that either didn’t lock or would not open.
The overall score was 26c. The “c” indicates exigent health and safety concerns. HUD gave Northland three days to fix those urgent issues.
Click here to read the inspection report.
Mayor John DeStefano called the results “an expression of the lack of investment” by Northland in the complex. “The condition of the buildings overall in Church Street South has been a concern for a long time,” he said. “It’s not acceptable the way it is right now.”
DeStefano said the housing violations have come up in two contexts: Major problems, such as a dangerous CO leak that forced 26 people out of their homes; and amid discussions about the future of the site.
DeStefano said the city plans to get moving on a long-term solution by brokering a consensus among neighbors and politicians on a vision for the future of the site. “Northland would say they’re looking for direction from the city on what we’d like to see happen: Would we like to see it rehabbed? Or is there a broader vision?” Despite planning efforts funded by a federal grant, the city has failed to come up with a vision palatable to local legislators and the people who live there, the mayor said.
Northland Senior Vice President Peter Standish did not return repeated requests for comment for this story. In a letter dated Feb. 1, Northland replied to HUD that it had corrected all the “exigent” matters flagged in the report, according to HUD spokeswoman Rhonda Siciliano. She said the timeline for addressing the rest of the violations depends on the severity of each violation. “HUD will continue to work with the property owners to address the deficiencies identified in their REAC inspection that have not already been corrected,” she said.
City inspectors recently determined that dilapidated conditions persist. In a surprise inspection during Winter Storm Nemo on Feb. 12, inspectors found 60 of 100 apartments in violation of city code. City inspectors are due back at the complex on March 28 to follow up.
The persistent problems haven’t slowed the money spigot from Washington. Siciliano said Northland receives a monthly payment from HUD for the 301 Section 8 apartments, depending on how many are occupied in a given time and how much income the tenants make. In the past 12 months, HUD awarded Northland $2,990,248. Siciliano said HUD can halt payment on the subsidy based on a poor inspection report, but has not done so.
The federal inspection lagged about a year behind HUD’s own inspection timeline. HUD inspections are supposed to be performed “every three years if scores are above 90, every two years if the score is above 80 and at least annually for all others,” according to Siciliano.
The last time HUD inspected Church Street South was September 2010, when Northland received a 68. That means HUD should have inspected again in 2011; however, it did not do so until January 2013. Siciliano said the agency did not inspect sooner because of “HUD funding availability for inspections nationwide.”
The money for the upcoming year wasn’t riding on the inspections, according to Siciliano: HUD had already renewed the complex’s annual contract prior to the inspections. One failing inspection report does not preclude renewal of that contract, she said.
DeStefano said he recently met with top HUD brass in Washington, D.C. about the state of the complex. “We expressed our concern about the failure” on the inspection reports.
He accepted some responsibility on the city’s part to give Northland guidance on how to proceed. At issue, he said, is “Do you fix what’s there to some reasonable standard, or do you attempt to do a redevelopment” like Elm Haven or Q Terrace?
“The owner will turn to us and say, ‘So what do you want us to do?’”
DeStefano said the city, tenants and local lawmakers need to come up with an answer. “We feel there needs to be a community process that articulates a vision for the development and their families.”
One tenant interviewed Wednesday urged officials to “tear up” the complex, so long as she gets a Section 8 voucher to take elsewhere. In her five years living there, Erika Torres said she has encountered various problems, including water leaking from a toilet into a bedroom ceiling, mildew, peeling paint, and a broken fridge. She said the landlord did replace her kitchen cabinets and her fridge one year ago. The landlord has “slowly and surely” made some improvements, she said, but “overall, there’s a downfall” in the condition of the complex.
The complex retains DeMarco Management, Inc. to manage the property; DeMarco referred comment to Northland for this story.
Tenant Kathy Rivera (pictured at the top of this story) said DeMarco has responded to her complaints, but slowly. When the shower faucet was leaking into the wall, sending water through the bedroom ceiling below, she said, “they fixed it, but it took a week.”
“They don’t come right away,” she said.
Through a $1 million planning grant from HUD, the city has already worked with Northland and the housing authority to come up with a vision for the future Church Street South. A planning team drafted a plan for mixed-use development with 600-800 residential units and 200,000 to 400,000 square feet of office and retail space. The proposal called for 20 to 30 percent of the residential units to be set aside as “affordable housing.”
That effort failed to gain traction, however. Hill aldermen balked at the plan in part because it was too dense. They also objected that the families who currently live in multi-bedroom apartments at Church Street South would have no space to return, because the plan showed only one-to-two bedroom apartments.
DeStefano said he has renewed efforts to build a consensus around the future of the site. He met with Hill aldermen in the past month to talk about the subject. Plans are in the works to discuss the matter with tenants. The city will act as “convener” and “facilitator” between HUD, Northland, lawmakers and the Hill community, he said.
“I just want to move this to some kind of resolution,” DeStefano said.