The neighborly spirit hits Boston district

The Associated Press
Saturday September 30, 2000

BOSTON – Buy low, sell high: It’s a homeowner’s dream that is coming true in this city thanks to soaring property values. But while sellers profit, the poor struggle to pay rising rents. 

In Boston’s resurgent Jamaica Plain neighborhood, however, some homeowners are donating some of their windfall profits to help poor neighbors keep their homes. 

The Affordable Housing Fund in Boston has collected about $35,000 since it was established last year, including two $10,000 donations this week. 

It has helped pay for tenants’ legal battles, as well as security deposits and rent. The money will also be used to hire someone to organize tenants to fight unfair rent increases or evictions. 

“I haven’t heard of anything like that. It sounds like an interesting answer to the problem of gentrification,” said Sheila Crowley, president of the Washington-based National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

To Steve and Deborah Eisenbach-Budner, who are moving to Oregon and have donated to the Boston fund, the project is about fairness. They said the people who helped improve the neighborhood — and boost housing values — should not be forced to leave because of rising rents. 

“It’s part of the basic concept: You benefit, you give back,” said Deborah Eisenbach-Budners. 

That attitude is rare, according to Randy Shaw, president of Housing America, an affordable-housing advocacy group in San Francisco, where the market is also extremely tight. 

San Francisco residents have seen housing values triple in the past 10 years but often view their profits as a result of their own “genius,” and don’t think about helping the neighborhood, Shaw said. 

“Once people hear about this, maybe other people will think about it,” he said. 

Jamaica Plain’s fund grew out of an effort organized two years ago by a tenants group, City Life/Vida Urbana. City Life got several landlords to sign a pledge promising to keep rents affordable. Then the organization realized that homeowners might be willing to help them out as well. 

The neighborhood has a strong sense of community, Steve Eisenbach-Budners said. “If you don’t have a sheetrock bucket over your head, you’ll walk down the street and see five or 10 people you know,” he said. 

Blacks, Hispanics and various European immigrant groups all have deep roots in the neighborhood, and many have endured widespread blight and crime suffered in the 1980s and early ’90s. 

Since then, improvements in public transportation, the creation of green space, and reduced crime have made Jamaica Plain a desirable place to live.  

But the demand — combined with a citywide vacancy rate of about 1 percent — has driven up housing costs. 

Between 1995 and 1999, the average price of a three-family house in the neighborhood rose 85 percent, from $118,000 to $220,000. Average rents for a two-bedroom apartment rose about 50 percent between 1995 and 1999, from $861 to $1,288. 

Poorer residents simply cannot afford to pay market prices, said Elliot Roman, 46, who has lived in Jamaica Plain for 30 years. 

“It seems like every time a community improves, poor people get pushed right out of it,” he said. 

Last year, Roman’s 6-year-old daughter and his ex-girlfriend were nearly evicted from their apartment after a rent increase. But money from the fund was used to hire a lawyer, who was able to thwart the eviction. 

“If it wasn’t for people donating their funds, my family would be out on the sidewalk or in a shelter,” Roman said.