WBUR

In Brighton’s Oak Square, Worries About Neighborhood Stability, Absentee Landlords

BOSTON — Ahead of Boston’s mayoral election, we’re visiting the city’s neighborhoods to find out what challenges they face and what voters there want in a new mayor.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer toured Oak Square in Brighton with lifelong resident Charlie Vasiliades, a member of numerous community groups who’s lived in the neighborhood for all of his 56 years. He’s affiliated with several community groups and has waged numerous community “battles,” as he calls them. Among them: an effort to save the Presentation School, a Catholic elementary school in Oak Square that did eventually close but later became a community center.

Vasiliades told Sacha that he wants to make sure neighborhoods like his aren’t overlooked by the next leader of Boston. And he shares a title with that person, if only as a nickname.

Charlie Vasiliades, the so-called "mayor of Oak Square," is a community activist and lifelong resident of the area in Brighton. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Charlie Vasiliades, the “mayor of Oak Square,” is a community activist and lifelong resident of the area in Brighton. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Charlie Vasiliades: People call me the “mayor” of Oak Square, just because, I guess, I’m a guy who needs a life, and, you know, single guy, not married with kids and stuff, but has been involved in a lot of the community issues with all the properties you see around in the neighborhood and so forth.

Sacha Pfeiffer: This looks like the kind of square where everything you could possibly need, you can see in one 360-degree turn. An old-fashioned square.

In many ways, yeah. A traditional town common, if you will. Hence the paths, the benches. The neighborhood has gotten better over 30 years in terms of the retail. It used to be a little bit more ratty-looking. We have our library and so forth.

You have a fire station, you have a YMCA.

Exactly. And the Oak Square School, which is the last wooden schoolhouse in the city. It’s now 10 condominiums that were actually turned into condominiums by our community development corporation because we wanted to preserve the building. Then across the street is this big brick building that was the parochial Presentation School. As the Greek Orthodox kid, I went to the public school across the street. Just about every one of these institutions you see, we’ve had to fight to keep — from the library to the school and the like. So it is something that helps maintain the neighborhood. But you have to work at it.

It sounds like you’ve had a lot successes. Does that mean it’s smooth sailing, or what do you think you need from the next administration?

One of the things I think we definitely want from the next administration is a sort of a vigilance to maintain that. Because one frustration I had in the past is we’re always sort of battling — not just here in Oak Square, but in many of the what I call peripheral neighborhoods, whether in Readville in Hyde Park or West Roxbury and this part of Brighton — this sort of trend to want to centralize city services. I was a little dismayed to see some of the preliminary candidates talk about consolidating fire stations and the like, which means this one could be threatened. My dad had a stroke about five years ago and I was very thankful that this fire truck was about 30 seconds away from my dad.

What do you want the next mayor to keep in mind about what happens to a community when it does lose a school or a library or a fire station?

To be blunt, you lose a population that, to me, is the core of any neighborhood: families, or it doesn’t have to be just families, but people who are long-term committed.

When they lost the parochial school, we had at least two or three people I know of directly who moved to places like Framingham or Northborough or so forth, because you get to a point of just like, you stop wanting to battle, whether it’s you can’t find a parking space any more if it’s developmental issues, or you don’t know about the school system, or you feel, “Oh, they’re closing our libraries, our fire station. They’re taking away all our services.”

Boston is obviously a thriving city. It’s not — and no offense to Detroit or Gary, Ind. — but, you know, it’s thriving. But I think we’ll be a hollow shell if all we are is 20- or 30-somethings passing through, who then when they get old enough move out to the suburbs to raise their kids, or whatever the case. I mean, you need a vitality of multi-generations, not just the trendy, chic population that I think the city, in my opinion, is starting to appeal to a little bit too much.

Charlie, one of the issues that Brighton in general and neighboring Allston have to deal with are town-gown relationships — Boston College, other schools in the area. How does that reflect on what you want from the next administration?

Obviously Allston/Brighton — more so, I think, than almost any other neighborhood other than maybe Fenway — is affected by three universities. And it has a big impact. It keeps our neighborhood in many ways, admittedly, thriving; there’s employment, you know? It’s vital for the businesses and so forth.

You’re thinking Harvard, BC, BU?

Correct. It’s kind of the triumvirate. A lot of people joke that, at some point, if they keep expanding, it’s going to be only about three blocks in Brighton Center that are not connected with the universities. But the impact of the universities has an impact on the rental market, on the housing market, with the price being high. When you have people outbidding homeowners and spending, like, you know, a million-and-a-half, let’s say, for a two-family home, filling it with seven or eight students and charging like $3,000 a month, not only is there no way owner-occupants can compete, but I know point blank that people have left. Because undergraduate student life just doesn’t sort of match, frankly, with regular neighborhoods. But that’s what makes the property so impressive to absentee owners.

Here in Oak Square, it’s not so much students, but they’re [people who are moving here] just after college, rooming together, go to the bars on Friday and Saturday, come home at 2 a.m. Every street in our neighborhood has at least a few houses like that. We all have our horror stories of having to call 911 to shut the party down. And it really does impact good quality of life. Because when you can’t sleep at night, or you have just that loudness or people not caring for property, it does get to a point it drives people away.

Charlie, is there anything you can show us in this neighborhood that reflects the absentee landlord problem you consider to exist?

Yes, I think I do have one example I can show you up on my street, as a matter of fact.

Great. So we can walk over there?

Yeah.

We’re crossing Washington?

Yup, we are crossing Washington Street. And now we’re walking up Breck Avenue toward my street, Langley Road.

So you’re an Oak Square lifer?

Yup. My parents bought the house when I was 2 years old, and I just turned 56 last week.

This is your childhood home you’re in?

You got it. [He points to a different house.] So this house here, for example, when I was growing up as a kid, this was owner-occupied.

This is what? A vinyl-sided two-family?

Yeah, it’s a two-family. And I’m just going to walk you about 10 feet, just to show you a little of the side of the house. But you can see they have a paved front yard. They have a couch in the front yard. The chairs, barbeque, the trash barrels on the side.

Some of the siding looks a little melted, like it’s been near a gas grill over there.

The point is this is not the worst house, by far, you’d see in the city. But compare this to the houses next to it, which are owner-occupied. And look at the way the yards are maintained — flowers, trim and so forth — and compare it to this. This is where in the front yard there was, maybe a month ago, a party with about 30 people. I know the neighbors here had to call the police to have a chat with the guys to try to respect the neighborhood, and they were pretty good. They did quiet down. But it’s that sort of problem that if houses all become like this, and you can’t sleep at night, or it just looks like a frat house or whatever you want to call it, there’s a pressure to push people out.

If that happens, you kind of say, “Why do I hang around?” Any time a house comes up you worry who’s going to buy it. The city might not be able to completely change the market. But it can help enforce rules to prevent what I would call the rape of the neighborhood by absentee landlords. If I had to put it in one sentence: Absentee landlords are just looking at this as a gold mine to milk it, to not take care of the neighborhood, and to get their money out of it.

What does Brighton generally, and Oak Square in particular, need from the city when it comes to public education?

Quality schools where you can send your kids is key. I think people do want a school, ideally, that’s near them. And in our neighborhood, most people do, I think, like the elementary schools. They’re not really that confident, frankly, in the high school-level schools. That’s a bit more of an incentive to drive someone to Dedham or to Watertown or someplace like that.

“Drive” them there as in move to one of those communities?

Correct.

Pay a little more for a house, pay a little more in taxes, but maybe feel better about the public education system there?

Exactly. And also, probably not have a noisy house with students next to you, either. So, altogether, it makes a difference.

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