Basement apartment vote arrives with suspicion over campaign money

Chestnut Hill Realty’s building on Langdon Street is one of 24 in Cambridge that could add basement apartments if a proposed change in zoning passes. (Photo: Google)

For anyone who’s dreamed of an endless view of people’s passing ankles, Monday is an important day — it’s the last day a basement apartment proposal can be voted before the zoning petition behind it expires.

Most people, though, think the only dream to be realized by approval is Chestnut Hill Realty’s dream of making more money from its four city properties, which have basement space enough to fit some 15 market-rate apartments estimated to bring in a combined $300,000 a year in rent. (Other companies can also benefit. The initial zoning suggested there could 154 more studio or one-bedroom units in 24 buildings in addition to Chestnut Hill Realty’s 19; a revised petition limits it to 13 buildings, including three of Chestnut Hill Realty.) This, combined with the doggedness of city councillors in seeing the petition comes to a vote and a history of campaign contributions from people associated with the company, is enough to raise some suspicion among development-wary residents.

One solution has been proposed by the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods. Since the petition was introduced as “work force housing,” described by the real estate company’s Matthew Zuker as satisfying the “strong need in Cambridge for reasonably priced apartments for retirees, young workers, working singles and couples and graduate students,” the association has proposed an amendment that would mean adding basement apartments …

shall not result in an increase in the number of market-rate units in the building. A number of units equal to the number of new dwelling units shall become affordable units and comply with all of the affordability, distribution and unit type requirements … only the unit types of the new dwelling units need be considered for this purpose.

Association co-president Heather Hoffman, who sent the amendment to the council, and husband Mark Jaquith, who has written about the basement apartments over the months, seem less skeptical about the petition than some other residents, including Michael Phillips.

“All I want to say is, ‘Seriously? Is anyone falling for this?’ Just vote it down already so it’ll be at least two years before it comes back again,” Phillips said during public comment at the City Council’s meeting on Monday.

“Or, if I may politely request, recuse yourself from the vote if you have received campaign donations from that company,” he said to a smattering of applause from the audience.

Campaign donations

It’s not the first time such a suggestion has been raised. During the fall election season, council hopeful Gary Mello wanted “councillors who are the direct beneficiaries of zoning changes to recuse themselves of involvement in those discussions” and cited Leland Cheung, Mayor David Maher, Denise Simmons and Tim Toomey as getting campaign contributions from developers for Massachusetts Institute of Technology projects. And on his Cambridge Civic Journal website, Robert Winters said, “It may be time for the Cambridge City Council to consider an ordinance prohibiting campaign contributions by any party with business before the City Council (or the representatives of any such party) for a period of one or two years before and after the matter is voted by the City Council.”

Winters goes on, in reference to the basement apartment petition introduced in January, to say:

This is The Petition That Will Not Die — twice disapproved by the Planning Board with numerous questions raised by the City Engineer. The fact that the petitioners, Chestnut Hill Realty, have contributed mightily to the campaign accounts of several city councillors raises questions of conflict of interest and whether zoning relief can be purchased via campaign contributions. This perception, of course, is not limited to this petition. In fact, the scale of political contributions by parties with business before the City Council has skyrocketed in recent years.

According to the state’s Office of Campaign & Political Finance, $15,525 has been donated to six councillors since June 29, 2009. The most has gone to Marjorie Decker, who got $6,850 in 15 donations from 11 donors linked to the company. She’s followed by Ken Reeves, who got $5,600 in a dozen donations from nine of the same donors. The least has gone to Toomey, who got $657 in five donations from four of those donors.

State law says candidates must have occupation/employer information for anyone giving $200 or more at once or over the course of the year, but they can also satisfy the obligation by asking for the information, whether they get the information or not. Many of the contributors listed at OCPF leave that information blank or say merely that the information was requested.

An analysis of the data, passed to Cambridge Day anonymously, describes the methods of donation in negative terms — as “tricks” intended to disguise the ultimate size of total dollar amounts — and gives examples of how each is accomplished. There are also reasonable explanations possible for each.

Trick 1: Contribute below the employer-identification limit while a spouse contributes at or above the limit with no employer disclosure, obfuscating the source of funds. Example A: On Sept. 15, Peter and Patti Poras of 121 Park Ave., Newton, contributed separately to Reeves, with he donating $100 without having to disclose his occupation or employer, while she donated $500 and identified herself as a homemaker. Example B: Two days earlier, the Porases contributed separately to Decker, with he donating $175 and saying he is president of Chestnut Realty’s investment division and she donating $500 and again identifying herself as a homemaker.

Trick 2: Contributing at a limit that requires a declaration of employer, but giving the information for some records and not others. Example: Four members of the Zuker family each made $500 donations in September 2009 to Decker without disclosing their employer or occupation — on Sept. 9, Robert and Molly of 22 Griggs Terrace, Brookline, and Judi of 128 Baldpate Hill Road, Newton, and on Sept. 21, Matthew of 39 Glendale Road, Chestnut Hill; meanwhile, on Oct. 3, Reeves got $500 from Robert, with an employer identified as “Real Estate, Chestnut Hill Realty,” and $500 from Matthew, with an employer identified as “Realtor, Chestnut Hill Real Estate.”

It’s not exactly the Chestnut Hill petition coming up for a vote Monday, though, but a version with five changes made by councillors during a Nov. 7 meeting of their Ordinance Committee.

By suggestion of Maher, an approved petition will allow basement apartments to be installed only as part of a temporary test program. Additionally, little no parking will come with the new units; no basement apartments can be added in parts of the city that have flooded and city engineers — who have expressed serious concern about flooding, even in parts of the city where basements haven’t flooded before — will have “full authority to require additional safeguards”; and councillors want “improvement” of the petition’s affordable housing proposal, although that does not make the amendment wanted by the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods a lock to be voted in.

Vice mayor Henrietta Davis, who showed the most concern about flooding during the committee meeting, said Monday that she wanted the engineers and city planners to be on hand to answer councillor questions before the petition gets voted. And councillor Craig Kelley questioned the need to vote on the amended petition rather than let the whole thing expire and be refiled.

“This is a relatively dramatic amendment for a petition that is not time sensitive, and I would prefer the whole thing not get passed. I will vote no on this,” Kelley said.

Here is the full list of Chestnut Hill Realty-related campaign contributions starting in 2009, grouped by councillor. The gray tones are to separate one councillor from another, not to highlight individual councillors.

This post was revised Dec. 12, 2011, to show a change in the Chestnut Hill Realty petition.

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