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Adrian Walker

On Back Bay street, residents worry about end to modest rents

Clearway Street (far left) sits behind the Christian Science complex and is close to the Prudential Center and Berklee College of Music.
Clearway Street (far left) sits behind the Christian Science complex and is close to the Prudential Center and Berklee College of Music.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2014

Clearway Street, a one-block lane in the Back Bay, has become an anomaly, a street of modestly priced rental housing in the heart of skyrocketing property values. Its residents, many of them longtime renters, are hanging on, but their grip is getting tenuous.

The street is nestled between the Christian Science Church — which also owns all of the 10 apartment buildings on Clearway — and the Berklee College of Music. The church has made no secret of its desire to get out of the real estate business; meanwhile Berklee, like all local colleges, struggles to house its student body.

Residents of Clearway believe their neighbors have plans to transform the block, perhaps by creating student housing. The residents fear they will be displaced.

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“The students should live in the suburbs as far as I’m concerned,” said longtime resident Ashley Reid. “Let them take buses into the city.”

Not all of Reid’s neighbors feel as dismissive of the students as she does, but anxiety about displacement seems well-founded. The street is affordable almost by accident — the buildings are old and have never been renovated, so they fetch modest rents. But it doesn’t take more than a look around the exploding upscale neighborhood that surrounds it to see that its days as working-class housing could be numbered.

The street is at the crossroads of two trends that are likely to change it — booming real estate prices and institutional expansion. Surrounded by high- rises, and with cranes that are building a new Four Seasons luxury tower less than a block away, it almost looks physically squeezed.

The Fenway Community Development Corporation has worked to mobilize tenants. The area’s city councilor, Josh Zakim, has also asked the Boston Redevelopment Authority to look into Berklee’s student housing, questioning whether the college is violating a longstanding agreement with the city to build dorms rather than steering students into rental housing in surrounding neighborhoods.

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“It’s one of the few places in our downtown neighborhoods where people who aren’t making six figures can afford to live,” Zakim said. “Keeping that stabilized and keeping the diversity of Clearway Street is very important.”

The church bought the block in the 1960s, when it was dominated by bars and, legend has it, the occasional brothel. Now the church’s real estate portfolio, acquired for a relative pittance, is worth a small fortune. The church has already sold some of it, and the future of the apartments on Clearway is anyone’s guess.

The church couches its divestment in spiritual terms. “Our business is really healing the world,” said Jack Train, the church’s real estate manager. “We’re in business to pray, to uplift, and to keep our focus in that direction. We’ve tested the market and we’re examining our options.”

Berklee, which recently opened one new dormitory and has plans for another, said in a statement that it is working to fulfill the city’s mandate for more on-campus housing for college students.

Train adamantly denies that the church has any intention of displacing the residents. While he acknowledges that the number of students rose sharply at one point, he says the student population has declined in the past year. He says the Fenway CDC’s suspicions that the church wants to pack the apartments with students are simply wrong.

“Our rental agent last year got it wrong,” he said. “We’ve addressed that. Our intention is to have a balanced population there.” But how long will the church’s intentions matter? Train said the church has fielded offers for the properties, and is considering whether to accept them.

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Richard Giordano, with the Fenway CDC, said his organization’s ultimate goal is to reach an agreement that preserves the affordability of the apartments. He is hoping that the city will step in to help keep the block just as it is.

Maybe the Christian Science Church is right that owning apartments no longer fits into its mission. But displacing longtime tenants doesn’t sound like missionary work either.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.