Thursday, June 20, 2024

The grounds of Peter Valentine’s colorful home near Cambridge’s Central Square is locked from visitors Monday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The death of eccentric artist Peter Valentine, 80, whose mystically decorated house and fence near Central Square drew attention when he was alive and has now been proposed as an arts center, has resurrected the tangled history of rent control in Cambridge. It has also exposed mysteries that tell conflicting stories about Valentine’s financial resources at a time when he benefited from rent control, a program intended to protect tenants from skyrocketing rents.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under attack from a tenants’ movement in the 1980s, reportedly gave the run-down rent-controlled three-decker where Valentine was living alone to the artist and moved it from a tiny street off Massachusetts Avenue to its current location at the corner of Brookline and Franklin streets partly in return for being allowed to remove it from rent control. Yet a deed filed in 1991 at the Middlesex Registry of Deeds says Valentine, who was believed to be living on paltry disability benefits, paid $100,000 to MIT for the property.

Valentine also filed a homestead declaration about six months after the purchase, a move that protects up to $500,000 of a property owner’s equity against attachments, seizures and similar legal actions. In the filing he said he was disabled and could not work and included a statement from the federal government saying he got $536 a month in Supplemental Security Income.

Less than a month after Valentine became the owner of 37 Brookline St., the building was remodeled, with two additional rooms and a bathroom upgrade on the first floor, new drywall, trim for the windows and doors and other changes. The total cost according to the building permit was $26,000 in 1991, or about $57,000 today after adjusting for inflation.

Valentine had the building extensively insulated in 2011 for $11,700, according to another building permit. That was apparently with the help of a state weatherization assistance program for low-income residents, financed by government funds and the electric utility then known as NStar.

Karmically aligned

Valentine’s friends as well as lawyers and others involved in the five-year battle over two buildings on Blanche and Green streets – which MIT needed to clear away to get the space to finish the huge Cambridgeport project now known as University Park – all said in interviews that they believed the university gave the property to Valentine. Some were shocked to hear about the $100,000 deed and recalled that he was living on disability payments.

“I remember it well,” said Terrence Morris, former executive director of the Cambridge Rent Control Board. He recalled a meeting in his office “with Peter and MIT, it was on a Friday. MIT agreed to move the house to that property [on Brookline Street] and give it to him.”

Valentine’s “Cosmic Moose and Grizzly Bear’s Ville” on Brookline Street. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The university “also agreed to orient [the building] the way he wanted,” Morris said. In an often-quoted remark, Valentine had said at a Rent Control Board hearing that he couldn’t move out of his apartment on Blanche Street because he was “in karma” with his energy fields there. MIT promised to recreate that situation on Brookline Street.

One person involved in the dispute who didn’t want to be identified said that beside giving Valentine the building, MIT funded a trust to help maintain it. The person no longer had access to details such as how much was put into the trust. An MIT spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking information about a trust or about the deed showing a payment for the property.

Lost housing?

In the years after he moved into the building, Valentine became a beloved example of whimsical oddness as he walked around the Central Square neighborhood in homemade clothes and spoke at City Council meetings. After he died at home Aug. 9, people praised his unconventional outlook and more. “He was wise, warm and full of love for humanity and especially for Cambridge, which had given him life, he said,” a tribute from Cambridgeport neighborhood organizer Cathy Zusy said.

But some in the tenant movement criticized him for living alone in a three-unit building obtained with the help of tenant organizations, essentially eliminating two rent-controlled apartments. At a council meeting Jan. 23 where some people, including Zusy, asked the city to help turn Valentine’s house into an arts center and butterfly preserve – councillors voted 8-1 to support it – former council candidate Gary Mello dissented.

“Truthfully, greed, selfishness and effective extortion were abused to grant a single beneficiary exclusive privileges at a huge, huge expense,” Mello said in public comment. “No person has ever benefited so much from the combined efforts of city and advocacy agencies. Those combined agencies weren’t working for any individual. Their intent was preservation of affordable housing. In the aggregate, however, secure homes for at least eight people were lost for the past 30 years.”

Property of a trust

The building and land is now assessed at $1.8 million and is owned by Valentine’s sister, Adrienne Bemak, and her husband, Rob Okun of Amherst, as trustees of the Peter Zak Valentine Family Trust. Bemak obtained power of attorney for Valentine in 2021, and she signed the papers transferring the property to the trust in May 2021.

The city took the property for $5,989 in unpaid real estate taxes, interest and fees in 2012 but later gave Valentine a deferral until the property was sold. The most recent property tax bill, which was due in November, said the amount of the deferral had risen to more than $31,000.

Bemak and Okun are on a committee organized to find a buyer for the property that will maintain it as an arts center. Bemak did not respond to a phone message left for her in February. Zusy said the group is now “focusing, with Peter’s family and the Valentine Art House Advisory Board, on preserving the fence: Peter’s life’s work and ‘masterpiece.’ Peter’s family will have it appraised soon and, we’re hoping that the Kohler Foundation, which has expressed interest in conserving the fence, will make a site visit.”

Councillors in January said the city is unlikely to buy the building, since it has declined to save other buildings occupied by artists. Nevertheless, Zusy referred questions about the building to the city manager and the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.