Buying In

Two years ago, Johnny Ramirez and his family seemed unlikely candidates to become homeowners in a west-of-Boston suburb. They had come to Framingham from the Dominican Republic seven years earlier, still struggled with English, and had limited savings. He worked as a custodian in the local public schools, while his wife, Aurelina, stayed home in their south side apartment in a large rental complex and cared for their two children, now ages 5 and 10.

Today, they are proud owners of a two-family house in Framingham’s Marian Picard neighborhood, site of a cluster of duplexes now experiencing a remarkable revival after years of decline. The Ramirez children play in the yards that connect the 14 buildings about a mile south of downtown Framingham. Johnny Ramirez, who still works days as a school custodian, spends his evenings and weekends painting, sanding, patching, landscaping, and otherwise securing his piece of the American Dream.

“It’s a big change. It’s an experience I’ve never had before,” said Ramirez, 34, sitting in his living room one recent afternoon. He had just come home from his job and was waiting for a plumber to arrive to finish work on the attached three-bedroom apartment Ramirez was preparing to rent to his sister-in-law and her family. “This is better–100 percent better.” The Ramirez family is among the beneficiaries of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council’s Marian Picard Initiative, a nonprofit venture that links first-time homeownership with affordable rentals and neighborhood revitalization. Two years ago, the council, a 1960s-era anti-poverty agency known as SMOC, borrowed a little over a million dollars from a nonprofit lender and bought the small apartment buildings, which had fallen into disrepair under an absentee landlord.

SMOC, which provides a wide range of services in 10 western suburbs between Worcester and Waltham, spent about $200,000 repairing the duplexes, some of which had structural damage after years of neglect and frequent tenant turnover.

“The owner lived out of state, and part of the problem was that the landlord had forgot about them,” said Charles E. Gagnon, the SMOC official in charge of the project. “They were a distressed property that was at risk of promoting disinvestment in the whole area.”

Once the buildings were habitable, SMOC began looking for low- and moderate-income renters who might be successful owners. They were screened, then offered a four-week Homeownership 101 course: how to apply for a mortgage, how to make an offer on a property, how to arrange a home inspection, and other matters. Since the owners also would be landlords, they were taught the basics of dealing with tenants and maintaining an apartment.

Eventually, the potential buyers were chosen and sent to local banks, which, under an agreement with SMOC, offered mortgages at attractive rates with only 3 percent down. SMOC also negotiated with insurers and got a reduced rate for policies by buying in bulk. The town of Framingham helped out by using some of its federal Community Development Block Grant money to pay closing costs.

As of this summer, 12 of the 14 buildings had been sold and were occupied, while the other two were expected to be sold shortly. The buyers paid $105,000 for each–roughly $20,000 less than the appraised value. Ten of the owners are minorities, most of them Latino. Most earn less than $48,000 a year.

SMOC has organized a homeowners association, which meets monthly to go over such common concerns as maintenance of the grounds and driveways, the appearance of building facades, and setting up a crime watch. A SMOC housing counselor chairs the meetings now but eventually will turn the organization over to the homeowners.

The Marian Picard Initiative, which is named for the two streets on which the development is located, is an example of the creative projects nonprofit housing advocates are coming up with, now that the federal government has largely abandoned its former role as a builder of low-income housing.

Marc Draisen, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, said private housing agencies are increasingly looking for projects like Marian Picard to stabilize neighborhoods. “Many nonprofit groups target two- and three-family housing so you wind up not only with homeownership but also affordable rentals,” he said.

Even with the innovative approaches many nonprofit housing developers use today, the Marian Picard Initiative stands out. Its scale–28 units in 14 buildings on one site–is unusually large for a homeownership initiative, which typically involves two or three buildings scattered across a community. It is also remarkably ambitious in its pursuit of three goals–homeownership, affordable rentals, and community revitalization–in a single project.

“This is one of the first projects we’ve seen where an agency took over apartment buildings owned by an absentee landlord and created affordable homeownership,” said Ray Weaving, director of lending for the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp., the nonprofit lender that financed the Marian Picard Initiative. “Projects like this are really quite rare.”

At first glance, SMOC seems an unlikely organization to be attempting a million-dollar-plus affordable housing experiment. The agency is a traditional community action program, one of hundreds set up across the country more than 30 years ago to fight poverty in underprivileged areas. Most community action agencies confined themselves to social services–day care, drug and alcohol treatment, job training, and nutrition counseling.

SMOC does all of that and more. With a budget of $30 million and 500 employees, the agency, located in the former Dennison Manufacturing plant in downtown Framingham, runs inpatient and outpatient mental health services. It operates a small business incubator and loans money to start-up firms. A decade ago, SMOC got into the housing business and now owns some 600 rental units in eight towns.

“You could call us community entrepreneurs,” said Gagnon, chief operating officer for SMOC, which is governed by a board of public officials, local residents, and representatives of disadvantaged groups. “We are trying aggressively to connect people to the housing market. We are an old-line community action agency, but we are also a full-service real estate firm.”

SMOC got into real estate through a series of incremental steps starting in the mid-1980s, when the housing market in Massachusetts was squeezing many low- and moderate-income people. Agency officials found that many of the problems their clients in social service programs had were tied to a lack of decent, affordable housing.

SMOC started by buying a run-down Framingham rooming house and turning it into a homeless shelter. “We felt if we were going to run a homeless shelter, we should take the next step, so we started developing transitional housing–halfway houses–and from there we developed permanent rental housing and finally we moved into homeownership,” Gagnon said.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, SMOC used a variety of public and private assistance programs to buy up properties that were dumped on the market when the Greater Boston real estate boom went bust. “We picked up bank-owned FDIC projects at bargain prices,” Gagnon said.

As the agency assumed the role of housing developer, it encountered opposition, usually from neighborhoods that did not welcome low-income tenants or halfway houses for people recovering from drug abuse.

“We’re very aggressive,” said Gagnon. “We’ve been controversial. It’s not real popular defending the poor these days.”

The agency is hoping to develop other homeownership projects like the Marian Picard Initiative but has nothing on the drawing board at this point. “We are looking for cheap land, but in this market, it’s not easy,” Gagnon said.

Despite the wariness with which many Framingham-area neighborhoods consider SMOC, the agency has won widespread praise for the Marian Picard project.

“I think it’s a wonderful program,” said Valerie Mulvey, a Framingham selectman and a resident of the town’s south side. “It’s very important in revitalizing a neighborhood to provide opportunities for homeownership. I haven’t heard anyone say anything negative about it.”

Sam Swisher, the town’s community development coordinator, said, “Many of the neighbors who have been most critical of SMOC’s transitional housing have praised the Marian Picard Initiative.”

The Marian Picard homes, which were built about 30 years ago, are set somewhat awkwardly on the edge of a large, low-rise subsidized housing project that tends to dominate the neighborhood. Behind Marian Picard is a high-rise condominium building with smaller units, most of which are investor owned and rented to people who tend not to stay long.

Swisher said the Marian Picard Initiative represents a much-needed investment in the area. “There is some distance to be traveled in terms of changing the character of the larger neighborhood,” he said. “But it’s a start.”

Johnny Ramirez said he had some reservations about the area before he bought his home: “When I started to be involved, some people said I shouldn’t buy it. They said this area is no good. They were wrong.”

Residents of the development often help each other fixing up their buildings. They share tools and advice. “We have a good neighborhood here. We work together. If I need something, I only have to ask,” Ramirez said.

The neighborhood has the quaint feel of a modest post-World War II subdivision. Traffic is light on the two streets, especially Picard Terrace, which is a cul-de-sac. Parents watch out for each other’s children, and neighbors greet each other from their front yards and driveways. The two-story buildings, each containing two three-bedroom units, are all roughly the same shape, but they were painted different colors and some have slightly different facades.

Sliding glass doors off the kitchens lead to little back yards that merge into each other. At this point, no one is sure where the lot lines are, Ramirez said. Some owners have planted small vegetable gardens. Others have put up decorative fences and planted shrubs. An American flag hangs above one doorway on Picard Terrace.

Many of the tenants in the duplexes are members of the owners’ extended families. Rents are about $950 a month and go a long way toward covering mortgage payments. Ramirez said that his mortgage payment minus the rent he receives is roughly what he paid in rent for the apartment where he and his family lived before coming to Marian Picard.

Since moving into his new home last November, Ramirez has done extensive work on his building, most of it himself. He has painted the interior and refinished the hardwood floors. With help from a plumber, he installed all new bathroom fixtures.

Meet the Author
Like many immigrants, Ramirez thinks fondly of his homeland and longs to return someday, though probably not anytime soon. “I like it here,” he said. “I have my life here now.”

Robert Preer is a free-lance writer who lives in Milton.