Southbridgers vote to continue on privatization path

By Josh Rogers

Southbridge Towers residents voted overwhelmingly last week to take the next step to leave middle class housing protections and take full ownership of their apartments.

The vote was 1028 – 242 to begin a $300,000, “Black Book” study of the merits of leaving Mitchell-Lama. A final vote to leave the program is at least a year away, if not two. Shareholders in two-thirds of the Seaport complex’s 1,651 apartments would have to vote to privatize in order to get ownership rights to their homes. Southbridge commissioned a study last year that estimated the apartments, ranging in size from studios to 3-bedrooms, are worth between $300,000 and $1 million.

Wally Dimson, president of Southbridge’s board, said more and more of his neighbors are realizing the benefits of going private. “I would not be president if people didn’t feel this way,” he said. “It’s the overwhelming will of the majority.”

He and other privatization proponents argue that all residents would benefit because they would acquire a valuable asset with no money down and they could use it for financial security or to sell. Southbridge residents already own the complex.

Opponents say that the added real estate taxes would be a burden to lower income residents, who will not be able to afford higher maintenance costs. They argue not enough people will sell their apartments to make it worthwhile for those who want to stay.

Under the proposed plan, 20 percent of the first sale of an apartment would be paid to Southbridge — enough to cover added taxes and needed capital improvements, according to proponents.

Victor Papa, a board member and leader of the anti-privatization effort, said he thinks the Black Book study will be the other side’s undoing because residents will see that leaving Mitchell-Lama will not be the financial windfall they think. “When they see it officially stated in the Black Book, it will turn a lot of people off,” said Papa, who had predicted his side would win before last week’s vote.

“They invent economic reasons to fit their ideology,” Dimson said of the opponents.

He said the board of directors has not yet determined exactly how it will pay for the study. He said the complex does not have to come up with the entire $300,0000 this year, and it expects to get $200,000 from Verizon in an upcoming contract. Things like a mild winter could produce energy cost savings that could be put to the study, Dimson added.

Papa has concerns about how proxies were handled and how the vote was administered by the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, but he acknowledged that this did not affect the outcome. He wants his questions about who is eligible to vote to be answered before the final vote, which he thinks will be in two years.