Welcome to my nightmare....

The front of my building. I've taken to calling it my "Fitzcarraldo." There's been a lot of talk about artists leaving Boston.  People wonder why. Here's a reason why an artist leaves Boston.

As a lot of you know, I have a live/work studio in Hyde Park in Boston in what was supposed to be a converted building for seven artists. I bought in about 7 years ago from a developer who was approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The BRA does this as part of the Artist Space Initiative because "Artists make Boston a more livable city - a city of people and neighborhoods, a center of cultural life, and a vital economic center." The BRA helped the developer with zoning and design review, and promoted the development to artists like me. Up until this point, I had lived in (and been kicked out of) every artist neighborhood in Greater Boston.  The thought of having a place where I couldn't be thrown out was appealing and it seemed a way to put down real roots in the city.  Plus, I loved Hyde Park, so I bought in.

It's been a complete financial, personal, and emotional shit show ever since.

To bring you up to speed, here's a recent letter I sent to the Mayor of Boston:

27 July 2012 The Honorable Thomas M. Menino Mayor of the City of Boston 1 City Hall Square, Suite 500 Boston, MA 02201-2013

Dear Mayor Menino:

I am writing to you because of persistent, worsening, and potentially catastrophic problems with my home that are the direct result of negligence, fraud and dishonesty on the part of a developer that was approved to build artist housing in the Hyde Park area.

Using the imprimatur of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, its list of approved artists, and its program to secure affordable housing for Boston area artists, the developer, Philip Manker, solicited, encouraged and presented sales materials to encourage the purchase of artist lofts at 1391 Hyde Park Avenue (marketing_materials). In the seven (7) years I have lived here, I have made every legal attempt to get Mr. Manker to finish construction of the building to no avail.

I contacted Heidi Burbidge at the BRA for assistance in the earliest part of the problem and she informed me that the BRA had no oversight over developers and could bring no pressures to bear on getting the project completed. While I understand that the BRA cannot force a developer to finish a project, it bears understanding that, but for the approval of the BRA and his access to the artist registry, Manker never would have been able to promote this development to artists and we would not be in the horrid position we find ourselves in now.

In 2007, the artists in the building hired a building inspector to review the construction of the building, this after 2 years of begging Manker to finish the construction and asking him to make his condo fee payments, (which we eventually had to sue him to get him to pay). This report (Lovering_document), compiled by Don Lovering, detailed many defects and more importantly, numerous violations of the Massachusetts building codes. The question here is: how did Manker get a certificate of occupancy for this building in light of the building code violations? How could the roof, filled with defects pass a housing inspection?

We went to several contractors to get bids to do construction. Please bear in mind that this construction was not cosmetic; it was to repair what was never done and to bring the building into compliance with the building codes. The attached bids show the amount of money we needed, in various scenarios, to accomplish this.

Because this is an artist-occupied building, we were able to appeal to the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts for assistance. They have been invaluable and secured Seyfarth and Shaw to be our counsel in this matter. Using the Lovering report and the estimates from reputable builders, they prepared the Verified_Complaint, and assisted us in getting Manker to pay his back condo fees and resign from being the sole Trustee of the building, with an eye to going to arbitration to settle the case. Manker has taken every opportunity to oppose or delay settlement, even going as far as suing me and another Trustee, alleging that we interfered with the sale of a unit. This spurious claim was dismissed, but it cost me and the other Trustee money to defend ourselves, and delayed Manker taking responsibility for his negligence.

Unfortunately, the economic downturn and the vicissitudes of people’s careers have affected our relationship with Seyfarth and Shaw; we have had a total of 6 different lawyers working on this case over the course of this litigation. We are also aware that, while pro-bono cases lead to tax savings for the firm, we are the recipients of free legal services and we may not be the most immediate priority of a firm, especially in the current economic climate. This is not to complain about our counsel; they have been supportive and wonderful. We do understand, however, that we aren’t making them any money.

Where we stand now: The entire roof of the building is leaking and subject to catastrophic failure. Our counsel has worked to get liens against the property here. Manker has said that he will pay us a settlement when he sells the units but, vis a vis the numerous problems and building code violations, no one will grant a potential buyer a mortgage to buy a unit. We are put in a position where only a buyer paying cash would be able to buy a unit. These issues also prevent the current owners from refinancing their units or from selling their units because, again, the violations of the codes and the inability to fix the roof prevent anyone from getting a mortgage. This, coupled with the collapse of the housing market have devoured whatever equity we may have built up in our homes, to the point where we cannot even get a construction loan to repair the roof.

In addition to the above, the PCB clean up in the Mother Brook and on its banks, about which none of us knew before we bought in to the property, will surely adversely affect our property values and our ability to sell, not to mention our health in the long term. We were notified last year of a deed restriction that will be placed on our land next to the Brook. Lastly, Manker has been disgnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. While our struggle with the building pales in comparison to the impact of his illness on his family, we are impacted in our ability to secure our remedy from him.

In light of this, it seems foolish to continue throwing good money after bad and while I am completely able and willing to pay my mortgage, the situation here makes me consider mailing my keys back to the bank and starting over.

Manker agreed to make a building for artists and he used the city, the BRA, his good will with artists, and the crunch of artistic space to defraud us into buying into a building he never intended to complete. At the same time he was supposed to be finishing construction at 1391, he was using the funds he got for construction to finish his own artist space in Canton, funds that he got because he was supposed to be finishing the condos we paid for. When he came to us, begging us to close so he could get additional funds to finish the construction, we complied because we were desperate for a place to live and because we thought things would be built to the specifications set forth. We were wrong.

I wanted to bring this to your attention so that it never happens to another group of artists. Also, I want to ask you for any and all assistance you and your office can muster. We need to find a way to secure our homes and workspaces.

Very truly yours,

Steve Locke

CC: The Honorable Michael R. Rush The Honorable Angelo M. Scaccia Peter Meade, Director, Boston Redevelopment Authority Clarence J. Jones, Chairman, Boston Redevelopment Authority

OK, so that letter went out at the end of July. I sent the entire package (108 pages for those of you counting) via certified mail and sent digital copies to the emails of all concerned.  I addressed a version of the letter to each person and copied the others, so they would know that I was contacting each of them directly, not as an afterthought.

I got an email from Senator Rush on 31 July ("Thank you for contacing (sic) my State House office.  Representing the citizens of Boston, Dedham, Norwood, and Westwood is extremely important to me. I take a great deal of pride in responding to my constituents in a timely manner.  Though I receive a large number of messages on a daily basis, please be assured that I will be in touch with you soon.").  On 3 August I got an email from Representative Scaccia's office ("Dear Mr. Locke, Thank you for your email.  Rep. Scaccia has received your email, and your package arrived in our office yesterday.  The House of Representatives just completed formal sessions this week, and he will now be able to review the information you submitted. We will be in touch as soon as we can.") I haven't heard from them beyond this initial "got your message" message.

Also, I got a letter (BRA_17_aug) dated 17 August from Peter Meade, Director of the BRA.  They advised me that "While the agency was involved with elements of design review and offered support for the zoning variance enabled its moving forward, the agency does not monitor the elements of construction for such developments."  That would have been nice to know beforehand.

The Director also advises that he will "review all documents associated with our approvals for the project and to coordinate with our colleagues in the Inspectional Services Department to ascertain the status of the departmental review."  He goes on to say that a member of his staff will be in touch within 3 business days to advise of any findings.  I'm guessing they didn't find anything, because I haven't heard from them.  It's been over 30 days since Director Meade's letter.

IMG_1595In the meantime, I'm getting meaner and the roof has gotten much worse.  I had to rent a storage unit ($117 per month, thank you very much) to protect some of my artwork.  Imagine coming home to rain inside the house as well as out.  My television and internet router were completely waterlogged.  Worse, a huge number of works on paper were soaked.  When I tried to stanch the leaks I was thwarted by all of the crap that the developer has "stored" in what is supposed to be a common access area. It really looks like an episode of Hoarders up there. I crawled around on my belly with a can of waterproof GREAT STUFF foam to try to seal the leaks as best I can.

I called a couple of roofers to see what repairs would cost.  The two who were kind enough to come by wouldn't even give me an estimate.  One of them said, "This roof is in such bad shape that if I patch it, I could be held liable for it failing."  This was a tiny window into why roofers are so expensive, and why they have so much insurance.

So with no support from the developer, or the city, with no equity with which I can get a construction or home improvement loan, no way to sell the other units because of the defects in the building where does that leave a brother?  I contacted a couple of companies that specialize in artist housing and I contacted some friends in the grantmaking world.  It seems that if I was a a charitable organization I might be able to start applying for grants.  I did have a very frank and pungent email conversation with Roy Close of Artspace, who took time out to answer my desperate and unsolicited plea.  Artspace makes some of the most efficient and beautiful artists spaces and has a wonderful track record of working successfully and well with local and state governments and with artists.  He offered me two suggestions:

1) Move. Affordable live/work space is at a premium in Boston, but you might decide that instead of banging your head against the wall for another year or two (or more), the best thing you can do for your sanity and your art is to spend that time finding another place to live and work.
2) Create a space of your own. Your letter tells me that you're not afraid of hard work, that you can write (which means you're smart), and that you're an organizer. Consider the possibilities of doing it yourself. For an example of what can be done on a shoestring, go online and visit http://www.rwsartstudios.com, the website of Running With Scissors in Portland, Maine. It (the website, not the building) is under construction, so at the moment the best you can do is use it to send an email to the woman who operates it. RWS also has a Facebook site. RWS is a commercial (for-profit) studios-only building created by this woman, whose name escapes me, and it shows what can be done with a modest budget and a great deal of hard work. Worth the drive to Portland, I'd say. Another possibility is Space4Art in San Diego. Cheryl Nickel is the woman who showed us around; if you contact her, you can say that Roy Close from Artspace (and a colleague of Teri Deaver, who went through it with me) provided the reference. Start with the website: http://www.sdspace4art.org/category/upcoming-events/.
It was refreshing to hear.  Frankly, I am very very tired of beating my head against the wall.  My relationships with the people in my building are suffering, it's affecting my ability to make my work, and worst of all, I hate coming home in the evening to a host of problems not of my creating that somehow I must solve.  I start looking at the paperwork I would have to do to create a non-profit; it's daunting.  Can I have a studio practice, a teaching practice and run a non-profit? How long will it take to become a non-profit, apply for a grant, get a grant and begin construction?  Will the roof last that long?  Should I just mail my keys to the bank, get in my jeep and drive?  It may be financially right to walk away from the mortgage - my studio is worth a lot less than what I paid for it - but can I do that morally? But it would be a case of throwing good money after bad if I cannot find a way to finance the repair of the building.
A couple of people have suggested kickstarter or some other course of crowd funding, but honestly, my friends are artists and creative people.  I don't feel right hounding them for money when they have to make their own work and take care of themselves and families.  Plus I'm not Amanda Palmer and I don't have any perks that I could offer; I don't make that kind of art.
If the city wants artists to live here, the apparatus that is charged to support them really needs to do so.  That means that a government entity that "certifies" artists and facilitates access to artists' spaces has to have some ability of oversight and enforcement.  There needs to be a process of vetting not just the artists who need space but the developers who are reaping benefits from creating it.