Harbor Towers Boston: Explaining the 2007 Assessment

Harbor Towers went through a major assessment in 2007. The story dominated local Boston news when it occurred, and its effects continue to be felt nearly a decade later. While the assessment was excessive, it was ultimately paid by residents. It was also a glaring exception, as most special assessments aren't high enough to prompt many residents to move out.

Condo owners pay association fees, or maintenance fees, to cover the cost of a building's basic upkeep. Most of the time, there is more than enough cash in the coffers to cover everything. From time to time, however, a major repair or other expensive project is unavoidable--and there's not enough cash on hand to cover it. When this happens, condo associations or boards request what is known as a special assessment from residents. The cost is sometimes divided equally among residents. Other times, it is based on the value of each resident's condo. This was the case with Harbor Towers.

Harbor Towers was built in 1971. In the years since, very little was done to the two buildings to keep them up to modern standards. No major renovations were performed, and no major upgrades were made. Perhaps not surprisingly, by 2007, most of the buildings' major systems were in dire need of repair or replacement. Due to the size of these buildings, this represented a massive amount of work--and it was going to cost a small fortune, too. In 2007, the condo trustees knew that it was time to act, so they hired a firm to perform an assessment.

The buildings' electrical, ventilation and heating and cooling systems were in such bad shape that they needed major repairs and, in many cases, had to be replaced entirely. Given the scope of the work that would be involved, there was no question that the total cost would be pretty steep. When it was all said and done, however, the final assessment was truly shocking. To have all of the work that needed to be done completed, residents would have to foot a $75.6 million bill.

Upon being told about the assessment, residents of the building, who all owned condos of varying sizes, were understandably upset. In fact, many immediately decided to move out rather than try to come up with the money. For the purposes of this project, residents were not asked to equally split the bill. Instead, the trustees decided to charge each resident approximately 20 percent of the total value of their unit. That way, those with bigger, more expensive units would pay more while those with smaller, less expensive units would pay less. Bills for individual units ran between $70,000 and $400,000. Many residents literally couldn't afford to pay their share and were forced to sell and move out.

In the midst of this controversy, a condo board election took place. Many residents hoped they would prompt another look at the proposed assessment, but the new board continued on the same trajectory. The new board collected a significant portion of the assessment and signed a contract with a new construction firm in October. Residents' complaints continued, so the board drafted a 15-page document outlining 53 detailed questions and answers about the project. With everything outlined in detail, most residents realized that the bill was legitimate and that they had no real recourse.

This was hardly the first time that Harbor Towers made news. The very construction of the development caused a bit of an outcry. Designed by I.M. Pei's architectural firm and headed by lead architect Henry Cobb, who later went on to design the John Hancock Tower, the building was built on a section of the harbor front that had fallen on bad times. At the time, the area mostly consisted of poorly maintained parking lots. Locals hoped that the new high-rise towers would revitalize the area, but that wasn't exactly the case.

Construction of Harbor Towers was partially funded by FHA money. The project was overseen by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Originally, the buildings housed hundreds of rental units that were geared to be more affordable than most. Early in its history, Harbor Towers earned a reputation for being a bit of a party spot. For a while, the development even had a somewhat seedy reputation for the supposed goings on that occurred there. By the 1980s, however, similar developments around the country began converting apartments into condos. After hearing about the great success of such conversions, Harbor Towers was ultimately converted into a development that housed more than 600 condo residences.

To attract buyers early on, these newly converted condos were sold for rock-bottom prices. Today, many original owners who paid around $200,000 or so now own units that are worth millions. Along the way, of course, they had to put up with not only the special assessment of 2007 but with several others. Indeed, the development's history is riddled with disputes among residents, and they were often over assessments for things like roof work, new windows, lobby renovations and the like.

Today, condos in this development sell for anywhere from $600,000 to more than $3 million. If you are interested in buying a condo at Harbor Towers, the good news is that all of that work was completed less than 10 years ago, so it should be a very long time before those systems need major repairs and even longer before they must be replaced entirely. The area around the towers has been completely revitalized. Following the construction of the towers, which are widely regarded as eyesores, the area was rezoned with stricter building height restrictions and provisions to ensure easy access to the harbor front.

There's no denying the fact that the towers are major landmarks in the city. Units within them afford, by far, the best views of the city and harbor. Now that the surrounding area has rebounded so nicely, the towers continue to be a popular place to live.

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