By Jeannette Hinkle, The MetroWest Daily News.
FRAMINGHAM – In between her day job and her night job, Antonia Saraiva learned she’d been robbed.
She arrived home in the late afternoon last week to find the brass lock on her teal-colored door had been forced open. Pieces of wood and chips of paint littered the carpet in the hallway.
Inside her once-tidy apartment at the Century Estates condominium complex on Weld Street in South Framingham, Saraiva saw signs of the intruder’s work. The drawers in her bedroom had been rifled through, their contents strewn about the room. The closet was ripped apart. In the living room, a suitcase that belonged to a guest had been searched.
After a quick inventory, Saraiva realized the thief had stolen roughly $4,000 in cash and her jewelry, some of which came from her family in Brazil.
Saraiva’s 12-year old goddaughter Victoria Barreto, who lives in a different unit in Century Estates, saw Saraiva outside, looking panicked. When she learned about the robbery, Barreto called the police and when they arrived helped translate what happened. Saraiva, like many people who live at Century Estates, mainly speaks Portuguese.
A growing group of residents knew about the robbery soon after it happened. Saraiva recorded herself recounting the incident and sent the recording to a WhatsApp group chat of residents.
The group chat was created by residents for sharing stories like Saraiva’s, though hers was a more serious example. According to Century Estates, there hasn’t been a unit break-in at the complex for 10 years, and Saraiva’s apartment may have been specifically targeted.
The break-in might have been an outlier, but security at the complex has long been a main focus of residents in the group chat, which is made up of mostly live-in condo owners at Century Estates who say they’re coping with filth, disrepair, safety issues and leadership that hasn’t done enough to address their concerns.
The residents, who pay condo fees ranging from $350 to $450 a month, are now organizing a long-shot bid to elect representatives to Century Estates’ board of trustees, which is currently composed almost entirely of non-resident condo owners who rent out their units. The board is responsible for making the most consequential decisions about how the complex, which was incorporated in the mid-1980s, is run and maintained.
For the past few months, the live-in residents, many of whom did not know each other before finding common cause in the condo’s conditions, have been documenting conditions at the complex in the chat, and sharing their concerns with condo board of trustees President Eric Tetschner and the condo’s property management company. Tetschner owns eight properties in Century Estates, according to the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds, which he rents out. He does not live at Century Estates.
Photos and videos taken by residents over the past few months show deteriorating buildings and outdoor dumpsters overflowing with trash. Door locks on condo building entrances are repeatedly broken, and residents say they’ve found people they didn’t recognize sleeping in the hallways. In a crawlspace under the stairs of one building, loose silverware and trash made residents wonder if someone had been living there. They say thieves stole a motorcycle from the parking lot and packages and checks from mailboxes, and that pest control efforts have failed to rid buildings of cockroaches and mice.
Tetschner said he, the condo’s board and its property management company have been responsive to the group’s many concerns, and that most of the problems they’ve raised have been addressed in a timely manner, though some, including broken locks, reoccur. Some common areas, including the hallways and the pool, are scheduled to be renovated as part of a 10-year capital improvement plan, and the board is currently evaluating bids for a new cleaning company, he said.
“I think these are legitimate concerns by people who live and own there, and they definitely care about the property,” Tetschner said. “We care about them. We care about their concerns. We reach out as much as we can to work with them in a proper manner that’s going to be fair to everybody. I think that’s the key phrase. It’s got to be fair to everybody.”
But responses from condo leadership haven’t satisfied residents.
They’ve been working together to improve the 293-unit complex, made up of a collection of brick buildings, since May. Widespread dissatisfaction was evident in a survey the group gave to and collected from residents of the complex.
Ilma Paixão, a longtime Framingham resident and Brazilian community activist, who has been assisting residents in organizing to resolve the issues at Century Estates, said 80 residents returned the survey.
“The majority of the people, they were not happy with the administration, they were not happy with the maintenance, they were not happy with the safety, they were not happy with the pool area, and they were not happy with the picnic area,” Paixão said. “Everyone in general is not satisfied.”
“They don’t listen to us,” said Stefannia Melo, who has owned a unit at the complex since 2008. “They just pretend they listen to us but then, they do whatever they want to do. Our property is losing value because the maintenance is so poor.”
“We’re angry,” said Eliana Mutz, who began renting an apartment at Century Estates in 2008 before buying a unit there in 2012.
Century Estates condo owners like Mutz and Melo pay condominium fees ranging from roughly $350 to $450 every month, which is on the high end for similar properties in Framingham.
“It’s over a million dollars a year collected for this condominium, and if you walk around, you don’t see a million dollars spent properly,” said Paulo Matta, a former Century Estates resident who owns and rents out four condo units in the complex.
More than 20 years without an election
Because of what they consider to be slow or inadequate responses from condo management, Century Estates residents believe the best way to solve the issues they say plague the condo complex is to elect residents to the board of trustees, which makes decisions about maintenance, repairs and capital improvements.
Currently, the board is made up of five people, one of whom lives at Century Estates, though bylaws permit as many as seven board members to serve in the voluntary, unpaid positions. The most recent “new” member joined the board nine years ago, according to a list provided to a resident by Barbara Quinn, who works as a property manager for the complex. Three members have been on the board for roughly 20 years, including Tetschner.
The board of trustees’ annual meeting will be held on Wednesday, but because condominium bylaws require more than 50% of condo owners to attend a meeting or designate a proxy to vote in their stead in order for an election to take place, the group has little hope of electing representatives to the board.
Condo owners who live at Century Estates say that’s partially because a large number of absentee owners who successfully rent out units at competitive rates have no incentive to attend the meeting or designate a proxy to attend and vote in their stead.
Tetschner echoed that analysis in an email to the board, “I reiterated (many times) my desire to work together and pointed out the fact that ~222 units are investor-owned and the group would have a difficult time getting a quorum since most investors appear to be happy with high rents and increasing prices …”
Of Century Estates’ 293 units, Tetschner said 70 are owner-occupied.
Tetschner told the Daily News that a quorum has not been reached at an annual meeting during his more than 20 years on the Century Estates board, a fact he suggested points to the board’s success in managing the complex.
“If there’s not a quorum, maybe that means that it’s decently run,” he said.
When the residents asked for a list of the absentee owners so they could contact those owners and mount a campaign ahead of the election, condo leadership denied the request, citing privacy concerns.
“For you to be elected, you go campaigning and talk to people in the community and you talk to people and tell them what you want to do,” said Matta, the former resident who owns and rents out Century Estates units. “I’m being prevented from contacting my constituents. If I can’t contact anyone, how am I going to make change?”
The residents say the quorum bylaw is unfair and prevents them from self-governing their community.
“We don’t have a voice,” Mutz said.
The only way that the bylaw could be changed, according to another Century Estates bylaw, is if 67% of owners vote to change it, an unlikely prospect.
“There is no way they can get representation that I can see,” said At-Large City Councilor George King, who has met with the residents about their concerns. “It’s a long and difficult road for them. Certainly there seem to be some issues of economic justice.”
Most Century Estates residents hail from Brazil, and residents said language and cultural differences make representation on the board even more important. One resident who speaks Portuguese is on the board, but the group of residents say more are needed, especially because that resident, who has one of five votes, can be easily voted down by other trustees.
Tetschner, who has been the residents’ primary point of contact other than two condo employees, said he repeatedly tried to work with the group of residents and offer alternative ways for them to participate in making decisions about the complex where they live and own property.
Among those offers was his invitation to reconstitute a resident-run rules committee, which could draft rules and submit those rules to the board for approval.
The rules committee, he said, is a “training ground” where residents can demonstrate they understand Century Estates’ bylaws and governance structure, as well as their ability to work cooperatively with the board. If the residents perform well on the rules committee, as determined by current board members, they might score an invitation to be appointed to the board.
The residents involved in organizing around condo issues say they want a seat directly at the decision-making table, not a spot on the training ground. On Friday, residents sent an email ahead of Wednesday’s board meeting.
The email went to a list of email addresses the group believes belong to owners. They collected the addresses from disparate sources over the months they’ve been organizing, but Matta said the group doesn’t know how many of the addresses are active.
The title of the email was, “Century Estates Condominiums – Need for a change.”
The residents attached more than 30 photos that show conditions at the complex.
“If a photo is worth a thousand words, these photos tell the indignation we feel with the board of trustees who have turned a blind eye to what is happening here,” they wrote. “Also the sadness we feel to see our property decaying, our home slowly turning into a less than desirable place to live… This is not sustainable and we have to act now before it is too late or so much more expensive to fix and revert this condominium to what it was many years ago, a good and decent place to live.”
The email urges owners to designate one resident who has been especially involved in pushing for change at Century Estates, Elianice Fernandes, as their proxy in Wednesday’s election.
“She’ll be directing your vote to our candidates, if you so choose,” the email said. “Together we can make a positive change in our community.”
Residents said this article helped them rally enough support to reach a quorum and hold an election for the first time in 20 years. Read the follow-up story here.