By Beth Treffeisen
A packed room filed into the lobby of the Harriet Tubman House, located at 566 Columbus Ave., to listen and ask questions on how the United South End Settlements (USES) will be reorganizing to better serve the community in the future.
Held on Tuesday, Sept. 19, the meeting outlined the initial ideas on how USES, which is struggling from financial difficulties will leverage their real estate in the South End to bring the nonprofit back into financial security.
Celebrating their 125th anniversary this year, the goal is to bring the nonprofit back on track with a new mission ‘to harness the power of our diverse community to disrupt the cycle of poverty for children and their families’ as the main goal and commitment.
“One hundred and twenty-five years is a long time,” said Gary Bailey the meeting’s facilitator and long-time South End resident. “As we begin to move forward to the next century, it’s going to take all of us.”
Meeting discussions included the USES Vision125, five-year strategic plan and how they hope to engage ideas from the community to learn how they can better serve the South End.
When Maicharia Weir Lytle took on the role as president and CEO a little over two years ago, she also adopted a very large challenge. USES has been operating in the red for a long time. In order to keep the buildings running it has been digging into the endowment, which will soon disappear if there aren’t some major fundraising efforts.
“It has become a larger and larger challenge to take on,” said Chris Cato, a board member of USES.
Cato said that throughout the 125 years USES has been in existence, the South End has changed a lot.
“When Whole Foods shows up – it’s a sign,” said Cato. “There is a lot we have to accept as our current reality but we can’t throw our South End gems away.”
As plans began for USES, a major question was if the organization is still relevant? In a high-value real estate neighborhood, 41 percent of housing units are affordable. About 20 percent of residents in the South End live below the poverty line and have low education. In addition, 36 percent of the children in the neighborhood live below the poverty line.
The short answer, Julia Johannsen a board chair member said, is yes – USES is still needed.
In order to refocus the goals of USES they had to let go some of the programs that no longer aligned with their new mission. The senior program moved to the Tenant Development Corporation, and the GED for adult education was transitioned out.
“In the next years we want to get really good at the programs we have,” said Lytle.
In addition, they are looking into ways they can increase growth in their programs such as in early education or at their summer camp in New Hampshire. But in order to grow, USES will have to re-imagine the way they utilize the spaces they have now.
As of right now, USES is not looking into selling any of their three Boston properties, but are exploring creative ideas, such as having a ground lease to raise money from them. The organization owns the Harriet Tubman House and two smaller properties on Rutland Street – #36 (Children’s Art Center) and #48 (South End House).
In addition, USES also owns Camp Hale in New Hampshire, which is undergoing its own separate master plan for expansion and renovations.
Currently, USES pays $600,000 a year just towards upkeep of the buildings. All of the properties require millions of dollars of capital improvement including new roofs, new HVAC equipment and new septic system and updated facilities at Camp Hale.
Lytle said they are exploring the option of bringing all of the activities under one roof, most likely in the Harriet Tubman House. The goal is to create more flexible space to allow for more activities to happen in one location, such as a lunchroom that doubles as a cooking classroom.
USES would also like to create more space that can be rented out for community events in order to generate revenue and increase program revenues through expansion of youth programs.
But, they can’t do it without raising money for construction, bringing in extra staff to help, and building an endowment as a lifeline in case something doesn’t go as planned.
In order to allow for the program expansions and update the current buildings Lytle said USES is looking to raise $25 million within the next five years. Out of that, $10 million will go towards brick and mortar construction costs, another $10 million will cover the annual operations and $5 million will go towards growth capital.
The endowment will be funded through real estate monetization.
“We’ve been here 125 years, and we would like that to continue,” said Lytle. “It’s aggressive and ambitious and a lot we need to do, but we don’t have enough time.”
She continued, “There are decades of change that are needed to happen and we’re trying to do it all within the next five years.”
A more detailed plan on how USES will reorganize their buildings will be presented at a November meeting. Until then, USES is focusing on community outreach to learn how they can better engage residents in their programs.