By State Rep. Jon Santiago and Councilor Kim Janey
We have listened carefully to the debate surrounding the sale of the United South End Settlements (USES) building at 566 Columbus Ave., known as the Harriet Tubman House. We have also spoken to countless neighbors who are committed to ensuring that USES can continue to serve South End and Roxbury families, as it has for the past 127 years.
As your elected officials, we cannot and will not imagine a South End without USES and the important services they provide to neighborhood families. Therefore, while we understand the frustration of some in our community, and as difficult as this situation is, we support USES in their mission to save their organization from financial ruin by selling their building.
Founded by six African-American women in 1906, the Harriet Tubman House opened on Holyoke Street in the South End as a home to black women migrating from the South. Moving to several locations before settling on Columbus Avenue, the legacy of Harriet Tubman has never been wed to bricks and mortar but to its commitment to serving those most in need. Today, her memory is honored with programming and services aimed at disrupting the cycle of poverty, as is the mission of USES and the various tenants that have called this building home over the years.
There are currently more than 350 children and families who rely on USES services, over 80 percent from communities of color and over 70 percent from low-income families. Many of USES’ families need these services to stay afloat in an otherwise expensive neighborhood. If the sale of 566 Columbus does not go through, USES will be forced to shut down and close its doors permanently. That would only exacerbate the gentrification we seek to curtail.
Without USES, we will lose our largest local provider of social services to low-income families. And as your elected officials, we will not allow this to happen and will fight to ensure that non-profit organizations in our community can continue their good work into the future.
Regarding USES’ proposal, a socially responsible and viable plan with community input has been crafted for the sale of its property at 566 Columbus Ave. They selected a locally invested development partner and a diverse team that understands our neighborhood because its members live and work here. This sale will have other benefits, including affordable housing that exceeds the city’s requirements, 11 residential units set aside for live-work spaces for artists who have been displaced from the Piano Factory and other nearby locations, home ownership opportunities, new minority equity investment opportunities for communities of color, construction and permanent employment for more women and people of color, and almost 5,000 square feet of space dedicated to community programming for non-profit partners and neighborhood groups. The sale will also allow USES to double their service capacity. And finally, the development team has worked with all six existing non-profit tenants to assist them with relocation at no financial cost to them.
We recognize that development and gentrification issues have divided our neighborhood for decades. Since taking office less than two years ago, we have been outspoken against displacement and have worked tirelessly with residents and activists to seek solutions to our housing crisis and fight for a more equitable and inclusive future. In this case, there will be far more harm in losing childcare, early education, mentoring, after-school and summer programs, and financial empowerment services for our most in need neighbors, than the sale of an inefficient building costing USES more than $350,000 annually to operate and in need of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance.
However, given the existing socioeconomic disparities in our community, to do anything that undermines the survival of institutions that provide critical services to vulnerable families is not an option. The only choice before us is one that ensures the viability of USES well into the future.
(This op-ed first appeared in the Boston Herald)