Differing Opinions over Potential Deed Restrictions on Tubman House

In the ongoing dispute over the Harriet Tubman House between the United South End Settlements (USES) and the Coalition of service providers in the South End, there is now a difference of opinions on whether or not the 566 Columbus Ave. building has restrictions on its sale.

The differing opinions have come up this week in what has been an ongoing discussion between both parties about the potential sale of the circa 1974 building on Columbus Avenue, and the overall inclusion of all communities in the process that led to decision to sell.

Two weeks ago at a community meeting put on by the Coalition and the Friends of the Harriet Tubman, moderator Steven Godfrey (of Quincy Geneva Housing) said the Coalition believed that there were three, perhaps four, restrictions that could prevent the sale of the Tubman House.

Now, this week, USES President Maicharia Weir Lytle told the South End Forum that searches by their legal team have shown no deed restrictions on the Columbus Avenue building.

“We’ve looked into that and found no deed restrictions on those properties,” she said, when asked on Tuesday. “We have attorneys from Goulston & Storrs working with us. They looked into that. They found no deed restrictions on the transfer of land. If people know something different, we’d like them to share it. We’ve talked with the BPDA (Boston Planning and Development Agency) and they have found no restrictions.”

But that conclusion was nowhere near what those involved in the Coalition believe – including representatives from Tenants Development Corporation (TDC), St. Stephens Youth Programs, a former USES board member and Godfrey.

During a March 13 meeting at Columbus Zion Baptist Church across the street from USES, a large portion of the meeting was devoted to whether or not USES actually had the right to sell the building – let alone whether it was the right thing to do in a historical sense.

The Coalition said they believe that there is a restriction for the building to be historic due to it being tagged by the Historical Commission in 1983.

“In 1983, a group of folks proposed a Landmarks District,” said Tiffany Benson, an organizer hired by the Coalition. “The Historical Commission looked at buildings in the South End that had historical value. They did a study of all the buildings and why there were historic and what value they had historically. After that was done, we have learned they decided the Harriet Tubman House was a historic landmark at 561 Columbus Ave.”

In the annals of modern African American history, the Tubman House does have some unique value in that it was the first major commission for Don Stull. In the 1970s, he was one of only a dozen African-American architects in the nation. Stull won awards with the Tubman House and went on to design Ruggles Street subway station and the current Boston Police Department headquarters. The mural on the outside is unique as well, in that it depicts 100 years of history in the South End.

Beyond that, the Coalition said they believe there are dual restrictions by the former Boston Redevelopment Authority (now BPDA) and also under the Urban Renewal District of the South End.

Godfrey said there could actually be a fourth restriction due to the fact that the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) contributed significant monies to the development of the Tubman House – particularly for the purchase of the property.

“We have been having conversations with attorneys about that and the spirit of the use of HUD’s money and any covenants that brings,” said Godfrey. “Is HUD good enough to enforce the regulations of the money used to prevent a sale? The answer is HUD isn’t good at that. You have to bring it to HUD’s attention to enforce. We know there are three, and this might be a fourth, restriction on the property.”

USES has been involved in an 18-month plan to develop a new strategy, and then to decide what to do about its real estate – which is spread out in three buildings between Columbus Avenue and Tremont Street. A final piece of property is a summer camp in the wilds of New Hampshire – known as Camp Hale.

Last year, USES announced they were planning to sell the Tubman House to generate an endowment. That money would be used to renovate and expand the property on Rutland Street, where they now have the South End House. By doing that and being under one roof, they said they can ensure long-term stability and being able to serve South End children and families into the future. An RFP for the sale of the Tubman House went out last fall, and responses have come in large numbers.

Last fall is when the Coalition became involved and first said they believed that historic South End providers and long-time residents had been excluded from the public process.

At the South End Forum on Tuesday, Weir Lytle said they would likely be prepared to make a decision on the sale by July 1.

“Right now, we think we can make a decision before the end of our fiscal year, which ends on June 30,” she said, “given the responses to the RFP we have received.”

She said they are evaluating for price, certainly, to make sure they can complete their mission of consolidating on Rutland Street. However, she said they are also looking at things like how much affordable housing will be in the proposal – noting they would like to push it beyond what is required by the City. They are also looking at the proposals for what is termed a “substantial” community benefit on the first floor of any new development.

“Affordable Housing is important to us and we’ll be seeing if we can stretch that to more than what the City requires,” she said.

Godfrey and the Coalition said at their meeting they would like to halt the sale of the Tubman House until there is consensus about the deed restrictions they believe exist.

Former State Rep. Byron Rushing, who attended that meeting but is not a member of the Coalition, also said that if there were restrictions it would be a “no-brainer” that they would have to pull the sale process and re-start.

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