Annie Gordon lives in a two-bedroom apartment several hundred feet from the Fairmount Line commuter rail that used to pass by her Mattapan neighborhood without stopping.
The 69-year-old retiree says she was at first thrilled when the city announced plans to create a train stop nearby, streamlining the once onerous commute to downtown Boston. She had signed petitions and attended meetings to encourage the MBTA to build the stop that has now opened across the street.
But a Waltham-based company, DSF Group, also saw the benefits of the new Blue Hill Avenue MBTA stop and purchased the sprawling 12-building property she has lived in for 44 years.
Now Gordon fears she may lose her home, unable to pay what she calls an unreasonably high rent increase of $275 a month.
“I think they did it to capitalize on our hard work building the station,” Gordon said at a recent protest outside her home. ”Now they want to push us out.”
The company purchased the property in 2018 for $65 million and rebranded, changing the name from Fairlawn Apartments to SoMa at the T. The new name refers to South Mattapan, a neighborhood description most local residents had never heard, with a nod to the New York City hipster neighborhood with a similar name.
Company officials did not respond to requests for comment on this story. At the time of the purchase, theytouted the transaction as a perfect fit for their strategy of buying “underutilized properties” near transit stops. Theirwebsite details an approach of repositioning properties through “aggressive marketing” to “maximize value.”
Gordon is among a group of SoMa at the T residents who are fighting rent increases and seeking improvements at the 347-unit property with the help of City Life/Vida Urbana, a Boston based nonprofit that fights for housing equity. They say the DSF Group is among a growing number of property developers raising rents and taking advantage of new train stops that community groups got built through years of grassroots organizing and taxpayer money.
“Literally they've been telling folks the reason why your rates are going up is because of the train station,’’ said Gabrielle Rene, a community organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana. “So the very work that they did to bring in value to the community is the very thing that's pushing them out.”
For decades, the nine-mile Fairmount Line commuter rail rumbled through areas of Dorchester and Mattapan without stopping. That was until local residents demanded — and eventually won – a public investment of $200 million to build four new train stops along the line, including the Talbot Avenue Station in 2012 and the Newmarket and Four Corners/Geneva Avenue stations in 2013.
The final stop at Blue Hill Avenue opened last year near Mattapan Square with a ribbon cutting event attended by Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and a group of community organizers. “The investment this station represents will lead to enhanced access to jobs, housing, and educational opportunities,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak.
But with new amenities have come a steady stream of new investors. In addition to SoMa at the T, a California-based company Avanath Capital Management, LLC., recently purchased the nearby Morton Village Apartments, a 207 unit property. After concern from residents, the companysigned a five-year contract to keep rents within reach, with the help of$4 million in city money, seen as a model for the best-case scenario by housing advocates.
But activists say in many cases residents have been pushed out before anybody could help them. Community activist Allentza Michel says so many people have been forced out along the rail line that some residents question whether they should have ever pushed for the transit improvements in the first place.
“There are community members who have told me directly to my face, ‘If we're going to be pushed out, then we don't want this train. This train is not for us. It's for the white people who want to move back from the suburbs into the city who left in the first place when we moved here,’” Michel said.
Community activists were concerned about gentrification along the line from the start. They’d seen the pattern of displacement before. A 2011 study of the 1980s extension of the Red Line to north Cambridge found transit improvements accelerated gentrification with lower income residents moving out quicker and wealthier residents moving in faster than the city as a whole.
Co-author Brian Feinstein, now a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, says he was surprised to see a dramatic drop in people receiving public assistance along the expanded rail line.
“This really is a replacement story, really textbook gentrification where lower income residents are being priced out of their homes in areas where you see expanded amenities, in this case, transit,” he said.
Marvin Martin, executive director of the Dorchester nonprofit Action for Equity, says he doesn’t regret pushing for new infrastructure in a long-neglected community. He believes there have been successful government and community efforts to protect affordability in the area with more initiatives on the way. The situation at SoMa, he said, was one of the worst outcomes.
“We should not deny ourselves the same comforts and opportunities that other communities have out of fear of gentrification,’’ Martin said.
City housing officials have been working to create new affordable housing along the Fairmount corridor, including a new 76-unit property at the former Cote Ford dealership site adjacent to the Blue Hill stop.
Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing chief, says an important strategy is to preserve affordability in occupied buildings. City officials had tried — and failed — to steer the sale of the former Fairlawn Apartments to a national nonprofit, the Boston-based Preservation of Affordable Housing. The group offered a similar price for the property, she said, but lost its bid anyway.
After the sale to DSF, Dillon says, the city tried to work with new owners, without luck. “The current owners have made it clear that they don't want to negotiate with the city or the residents on keeping rents at a level where tenants can afford them,’’ she said.
The SoMa situation has become aposter child among some housing advocates for legislation — called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act — that would help tenants steer owners to sell their properties to nonprofits at market rates.
Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, says if the law had been in place, it could have helped Fairmount residents steer the sale to a nonprofit that would have focused on building improvements and long-term affordability.
“You could have both. You could have an improvement in the quality of the neighborhood, in the housing stock and people could stay,’’ Kriesberg said.
The legislation is currently stalled in the state house. Some property ownersoppose the proposed law, saying it could delay sales of occupied buildings for months and reduce the tax base.
Whether or not the legislation is passed, it’s too late for residents at SoMa at the T to change who now owns the development that abuts the rail line, where the sound of passing trains is a frequent hum.
Gordon says that as her rent has increased over time, conditions have deteriorated at the development of four-story buildings surrounding a corridor of trees and walking paths.
Years ago, past owners pulled out a swimming pool and a playground, eliminated a security guard at the entrance and shut down elevators in her building, replacing them with fee-for-use storage. Walking up the four flights of stairs to her apartment is particularly challenging, she says, because she suffers from Lupus-related conditions and a weak knee.
Gordon says new owners sought to raise her $1,810 monthly rent by about $275, a hike she says will break her family’s monthly budget of just over $2,500. She’s worried about what happens if her landlords don’t back down — so much so she recently reached out to a homeless shelter.
“If things don't work out here, having to go into a shelter, that really creates a lot of anxiety,’’ she said. “Being an older person, and never having had to do that in my life.”
Betty Lewis, 69, also is worrying about what will happen to her if landlords don’t negotiate. She says owners attempted to raise her $1,800 a month rent by $300, adding another $500 penalty because she refused to sign the lease.
She’s lived in her apartment for almost 40 years and despite issues with mold and rodents, she doesn’t want to leave. She says she’s going to fight to stay, grateful she’s learned about her rights with the help of City Life. She doesn’t think she’s being unreasonable. She just wants to be treated fairly.
“I don't want to be out on the street,” she said. “I want a stable rent.”
There is some hope for better news for current residents. Following growing rancor among tenants, the DSF group this fall hired a new property management company, WinnCompanies. Company official Trevor Samios told GBH News that he wants to work with residents — and recently held a meeting at the property to hear their demands.
“We were brought in to help, provide better management, broker better relationships between ownership and residents and the city of Boston,” said Samios, vice president of Connected Communities at WinnCompanies. “Our goal is that certainly some of those items are going to be met.”
This new tone comes as the pandemic has depressed rents around Boston, still one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in. The MBTA also on Thursdayannounced cuts to commuter line service because of dropping ridership and reduced employee availability.
Even if long-term renters at SoMa at the T are able to negotiate reasonable rent hikes over time, it is unlikely that residents along the Fairmount corridor will be able to significantly slow the gentrification that is coming into their neighborhoods as steadily as a moving train.