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Low-income residents worry about Olympics’ repercussions

From left: Rene Bernal, Dora Sandoval, and Alexander and Dulce Bernal could face a rent increase for their apartment in Roxbury.Aram Boghosian for the boston globe/Globe Freelance

The tales of past Olympics' adverse effects on poor residents have become almost legendary. Homeless people arrested or bused out of town in Atlanta. Rental prices soaring in Sydney and London. More people on the streets in Vancouver. Homes knocked down in Beijing, Sochi, and Rio de Janeiro.

As Boston gears up to bid for the 2024 Olympics, advocates for low-income residents are starting to mobilize in an attempt to keep the city from suffering the fate of past Olympic Games. People struggling to pay their bills are an unlikely group to take on a mega-event like the Olympics, given all the obstacles in their lives. But advocates say that now is the time, before the bid is made, to ensure that the city takes steps to protect its most vulnerable citizens.


The Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee has been protesting at public meetings, handing out fliers detailing the impact of past Olympics and pressing planning committee officials for more details on its affordable housing plan. The group No Boston 2024 organized a letter-writing campaign, encouraging people to reach out to politicians.

Looking ahead, the state association of community development organizations contacted Boston 2024, which is organizing the bid, about the dangers of people being evicted or priced out of apartments as landlords look to profit from the Games. In Dorchester, residents say real estate agents have started tucking Olympics-related fliers in doors, urging owners to sell as Boston gears up to become a world-class city.

Rising rents are already an issue for many tenants, forcing them to move far from their jobs, schools, and neighborhood resources. And if Boston wins the Olympics, the gentrification that often accompanies the Games could drive prices even higher.

Dora Sandoval and Rene Bernal said they may have to move out of Boston or split up their family if the rent rises significantly.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

For the past eight years, Dora Sandoval, Rene Bernal, and their two children have lived in a cramped apartment in Roxbury. But the couple said they have been threatened with eviction and with having their rent doubled to $1,800 a month and could be forced out. If an Olympic event takes over nearby Franklin Park, as has been discussed, their neighborhood could become even less affordable.


The only solution that Sandoval, who cleans houses, and Bernal, a maintenance man, have come up with is to move out of the city, which would mean pulling their 14-year-old daughter out of the esteemed Boston Latin School, dimming her hopes of college. Or they could split up the family and move into a rooming house.

"It feels like there might not be any space for us with these changes in the neighborhood," Sandoval said in Spanish through an interpreter. "It's pushing us far away."

Boston 2024 has pledged that nobody will be displaced and no properties will be taken by eminent domain and that athlete housing will be converted into affordable units. But past Olympics have shown that the Games can make life even more difficult for cash-strapped families.

"It's one thing to say we're not going to take your home by eminent domain, it's another thing to say that we're not going to price you out of your own neighborhood," said Lawrence Vale, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of urban design and planning who has studied how the Olympics affect poor residents. "I don't know where there has ever been a Summer Olympics that has not had some displacement."


Olympic venues are often built in less developed parts of a city, and planners in Boston are eyeing locations near lower-income neighborhoods — from Roxbury and Dorchester to Widett Circle, an industrial area next to the Southeast Expressway that could be the site for the stadium.

An older apartment building in Beijing was demolished in June 2007, a year before the Summer Olympics came to China, to make way for a new commercial development.Greg Baker/Associated Press/File

In Chinatown, about a mile from the proposed stadium, Yan Li's rent has been slowly, steadily increasing, creeping up $200 over the past five years. Li, a home-care worker and nanny, and her husband, a housekeeper, spend half their income on rent for the one-bedroom apartment they share with their daughter, a Suffolk University student. All around their first-floor row-house unit, outfitted with cast-off furniture they found mostly on the sidewalk, luxury is encroaching in the form of high-end apartment buildings and a Whole Foods Market with an in-house spa. Olympic-related development could make things worse.

"If it keeps on going up, we won't be able to afford it because our income hasn't increased," Li said in Chinese through an interpreter. "I don't know where to move."

Local Olympic advocates see the Games as a way to improve infrastructure and revive neglected parts of the city. Some say the event could even be a boon for poor residents, offering job opportunities and experience, as well as housing eventually.

Boston 2024 has said that creating affordable housing would be "one of the most important legacies" of the Games.

"We are committed to a Games that is good for all the people of Boston," Richard Davey, chief executive of Boston 2024, said in a statement, citing the creation of "good-paying jobs" and increased affordable housing.


But the committee's promise that the Games will create thousands of affordable housing units may not make much of a difference for people barely scraping by. Roughly 3,000 of the modular units of athlete housing would be made available for city residents, and the proposed stadium site could be partially repurposed for housing, but it is not clear how much would be designated as affordable, said John FitzGerald, the Boston Redevelopment Authority official who serves as the city's liaison for the Olympics.

Residents were forced out of Rio de Janeiro’s Vila Recreio II to make way for a new highway.Leo Correa/Associated Press/File 2014

For new housing developments, the city requires 15 percent of the units to be affordable. These lower-cost rental units would be available to households that make up to 70 percent of the median income for the city, or up to $68,950 a year for a family of four, which is nearly double what two full-time minimum-wage earners make.

Even if new units are added, the Olympic-fueled gentrification could accelerate housing prices already on the rise. In Dorchester, the market is hotter than ever, real estate agents say, with several new developments on the horizon.

"I see the values in the next 10 years really skyrocketing," said Doug Bosse, a partner at Olde Towne Real Estate Co. in Dorchester.

Even if homeowners don't sell, they could use the Olympics as an opportunity to rent out their homes and make extra money. Renters won't have that opportunity, however. In fact, landlords could conceivably kick out their tenants in May, hike the rent, and find plenty of Olympic visitors willing to pay the price, said Joseph Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, a nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities for residents of all income levels.


"The idea of displacing tenants for the summer is one thing if it's a college student," he said. "It's quite another if it's a family or a senior citizen who might not have anywhere to go, and once they leave, might not be able to go back."

Low-income residents often get pushed aside when the Olympics come to town, said Claire Mahon, a Geneva-based human rights lawyer who wrote an extensive 2007 study on Olympics-related displacement for the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. But it doesn't have to be that way.

"There is a potential for a lot of good, sustainable, socially responsible growth for Boston," she said, "but now is the time to make sure that it's included in the bid."

Low-income residents also experienced Olympics-related issues in Athens.Tatiana Bolari/Eurokinissi/Associated Press/File 2002

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.