Early Years: 1988-1990
The MSCDC’s first office space was provided by Clark University and was located in the attic area of the university administrative building. With no air conditioning, no air circulation and ninety degree temperatures outside, it soon became apparent that a move was necessary and “prime” office space was located a block from the university in an empty commercial space that formerly housed White’s Cleaners. In fact, “White’s Cleaners” (with a few letters missing) was still prominently displayed above the door.
At first, more visitors to the building were people looking for drycleaning than perople coming in to talk about MSCDC functions and business. In addition to the confusion over whether we were a MSCDC or a cleaners, we also dealt with stray cats that lived above the suspended ceilings and the problem of having to regularly evacuate the premises when the heating system malfunctioned and fumes and soot were blown into the office space.
However, through these early “adventures” the MSCDC was able to undertake some substantive work. State and local foundation funding was obtained and the MSCDC was able to hire Maria Rosario as property manager and Myrna Benson as receptionist. The additional staffing was necessary as the MSCDC had been fortunate enough to quickly locate and acquire its first property, 927 Main Street. The building consisted of 6 units of distressed housing and two run down commercial spaces and was located in a priority area under the MSCDC’s triage approach to its revitalization efforts.
This first project was a benchmark in the history of the MSCDC. It proved that the MSCDC could access loan capital from conventional lenders by combining it with state and federal grants and financing from secondary sources such as Clark and the Massachusetts Community Development Finance Corporation. The project clearly illustrated the Catch-22 situation that is encountered when trying to improve properties in distressed areas. Banks will not make large enough loans to improve property beyond the average market value of property in the area. When average values are depressed it is economically impossible to improve property without exceeding the average market valuation.
Therefore, in the absence of large amounts of equity, improving property in a distressed area required multi-layered financing combined with grant funds. This is a lengthy, but necessary process.
However, by the end of the first year of its operations, the MSCDC has completed the commercial and residential renovations at 927 Main Street. It has assumed the management of the property and had successfully obtained federal funding for landscaping and tree planting in front of the storefronts. The work complemented the store front improvements undertaken by Clark on the opposite side of the street and represented a small but significant accomplishment, a nucleus strip of development on Main Street. It was hoped that this would act as a catalyst for further improvements.
The late 80’s slump in the real estate market was negatively impacting Main South, however, as evidenced in the increase in arson and property abandonment. The MSCDC became more important than ever. It is fundamental to the existence of CDCs to realize that their primary cause is not to make money but to enhance neighborhood stability; to acquire property and promote development for reasons other that financial gain. So at a time when real estate investors were rushing out of the area, the MSCDC moved in to repair some of the damage.
The CDC’s next project was the acquisition and renovation of an abandoned twelve unit condominium complex at 1020 Main Street. The CDC assumed a non-performing mortgage from Shawmut Bank and obtained additional financing and grant support in order to finance the renovations of the project. Again Clark provided the project with unsecured financing.
The renovation of this property satisfied the CDC’s goal of improving substandard housing and providing affordable house for area residents. By assuming responsibility for the management and maintenance of the properties the CDC was able to ensure their continued quality. The completion of the 1020 project also had the additional benefit of providing new headquarters for the CDC’s offices. Two units were converted to office space and the CDC staff left the cats and fumes and moved into comparative luxury.
The success of these relatively small developments opened up doors for the CDC to pursue further projects. 898 Main Street, 5 Vinyard Street, 17-19 Grand Street, 36 Gates Street, 2 Oread Street and 866 Main Street all followed in quick succession. The CDC was running its own management and maintenance crews and had decided it made sense to create its own construction crew, both to create local employment opportunities and do the redevelopment work.
As well as creating affordable housing opportunities the CDC, in partnership with Mayor Levy’s office, Councilor Nadeau and the Main South Alliance for Public Safety, had taken an active role in designing new procedures for the licensing of lodging houses in the City. Main South had long been afflicted with lax zoning and licensing regulations that allowed lodging house to be set up with minimal oversight in any residential neighborhood. In addition to this advocacy work, Steve Teasdale was appointed as the first chair of the City Manager’s Beacon Brightly Advisory Group, a committee organized to guide development in the Beacon Brightly section of Main South.
During the early years housing development had been the backbone of the CDC’s work. The completion of the renovations to the abandoned, fire damaged Beaver Street Apartments, firmly established the CDC as a competent and capable developer of affordable housing.
The Beaver Apartments were not only the largest and most expensive project that the CDC had undertaken at that point, with a project cost of over $1.5 million for 26 units of housing and six commercial units, but the financing was also the most complex to date. Equity financing was raised through the syndication of tax credits, grant support obtained from federal resources and permanent financing from the Massachusetts Government Land Bank. The project was completed in March 1994 and fully occupied shortly thereafter.
Rental housing was only part of the solution to the housing problem. Many traditional three deckers remained abandoned in the neighborhood, threatening the stability of adjoining houses. At meeting after meeting neighborhood residents expressed their desire to see affordable home ownership opportunities created. The availability of abandoned three deckers created an opportunity for such a program. Work with the City and local banks, the CDC acquired several such properties, renovated and sold them to first time buyers. The first property to be sold was 27 Gardner Street.
The building had been abandoned following a fire that left it badly damaged and was sold to the CDC by the Resolution Trust Corporation for $1. Upon completion of the renovations the historic character of the building once again apparent and the building sold. The project had highlighted the need for affordable home ownership opportunities, and it also illustrated the positive impact that the renovation of one distressed property could have in restoring some stability to the rest of the street.
The CDC picked up the pace at which it acquired and restored smaller properties. Abandoned buildings at 71 Gates Street, 33 Hollis Street and 10 Wyman Street were renovated and quickly sold to first time buyers who were anxious to own affordable quality housing. The CDC’s success at working with State and Federal officials to obtain the necessary grant funds to subsidize the cost of the housing ensured the long term affordability of the housing for neighborhood families.
By the mid 1990’s the CDC had successfully acquired, renovated and had under its management over 100 units of housing. But it had also become apparent that a more comprehensive approach to neighborhood improvement was necessary, if the neighborhood revitalization effort was to be successful and sustainable. Housing was only one of the threads in the urban fabric of our neighborhood, and it was necessary to prevent the others from unraveling if we were to maintain the integrity of the whole.