The Devenscrest housing crisis in Ayer

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Ayer is a special place with a unique history, full of people with grit and determination to keep the town moving forward. An early commercial transportation hub, deeply connected to the former military base Fort Devens, with a growing manufacturing base and a re-energized downtown with thriving small businesses, Ayer is a community that many working-class families call home.

In mid-July, I began receiving Facebook messages, emails and calls from Ayer residents, expressing concern that families who lived in the Devenscrest neighborhood had begun receiving eviction letters from the new owner of the property, Brady Sullivan Realty, that encompassed over 120 homes.

These letters informed residents they needed to leave their homes within 60 days, and that they must clear their front yards of any items including kids’ bikes, toys and swing sets. A week later, at a packed community meeting at the neighborhood’s Living Waters Fellowship church, myself, state Reps. Danillo Sena and Sheila Harrington, Ayer Shirley Regional School Committee member Erica Spann, and community leaders including Stone Soup Kitchen Director Cyndi Lavin, met directly from Devenscrest tenants.

I saw fear and panic in residents’ eyes, many of whom had lived in their apartments for decades. Mothers talked about the anxiety of moving their children to a new school system. Distressed constituents inquired about their legal rights while describing the already difficult housing market in the Nashoba Valley region.  One senior citizen stood up and expressed his outrage that a big out-of-state developer had the audacity to gut the neighborhood in such a cruel, selfish manner.

While I acknowledge that a developer has the right to purchase private property, I question the profits over people attitude that Brady Sullivan Realty brought to this tight-knit neighborhood, full of people living paycheck to paycheck. Imagine if this wealthy developer back in the summer had held off on the mass eviction notices, organized a community meeting, and assured tenants they could stay in their homes for a year, while the building plans with the town of Ayer were put in order. What if Brady Sullivan Realty had hired a housing agency and provided three months’ rent to families to find another place to live, instead of their current practice of a modest financial sum and a waiving of the tenants’ legal rights? Or agreed to keep some of the housing affordable for the Devenscrest seniors and families, and sat down with the town of Ayer to negotiate the development of the neighborhood?

Because Brady Sullivan Realty is applying scorched-earth tactics to clear out a neighborhood in Ayer, the response from many of the Devenscrest residents is to remain united in fighting back against Brady Sullivan Realty.

I continue to stand in solidarity with the tenants over this attempted mass eviction. I’m not going to give up and allow these corporations to walk all over some of my most vulnerable constituents in the Nashoba Valley region.

Since that July meeting, the Ayer legislative delegation has worked with Northeast Legal Aid to provide legal services to many of these tenants, communicated with Ayer elected and professional municipal officials, found an area nonprofit that is willing to purchase the 120-home property from Brady Sullivan Realty, and received assurances from Massachusetts housing agencies that they would finance the purchase (therefore not relying on Ayer town finances).

With winter approaching and the realities of COVID still lingering in Massachusetts, I’m deeply troubled that Brady Sullivan Realty has begun taking Ayer families and residents living in the Devenscrest neighborhood to court to remove them from their homes.

Elected officials and government do not have all the answers for a neighborhood housing crisis created entirely by one developer looking to make a profit at the expense of people just trying to keep a roof over their heads. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” It’s time to put people before profits. We will keep fighting, we are #DCStrong!