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MIT Involved in Tenants' Lawsuit Over Flooded Basement Apartments

Courtney Clench -- The Tech
Basement tenants at Kennedy Biscuit Lofts on Franklin Street have experienced severe flooding during heavy rainfalls.

By Jennifer Lane
Editor in Chief

Even as MIT contemplates breaking ground for new buildings in the University Park area to serve students and faculty, the Institute is being forced to defend itself following accusations by some Cambridge residents over its involvement in poor housing conditions.

Nine tenants in the Kennedy Biscuit Lofts apartment building have banded together to form the Tenants Association, and are suing the Institute as well as the builders and managers of the apartment building over substandard conditions in the basement apartments.

Tenants are now considering breaking their legal claims into two lawsuits, one dealing with apartment flooding and one with the heating and cooling systems, in order to properly address their various complaints, said tenant Bobbi Daugherty.

Basement tenants sporadically experience flooding of both rainwater and sewage, mold growth, and heating problems. Legal claims over the flooding name the Institute as a defendant, Daugherty said.

The suit seeks to prevent the landlords from renting basement apartments, and to obtain reimbursement for rent as well as heating and utility costs.

These claims have been winding their way through the courts since last October.

MITowns land in question

Six months ago, MITpetitioned to be dismissed from the lawsuit, arguing that the Institute, which owns the land but leases it to Forrest City Development Corporation, could not be held responsible for the poor living conditions. The request was rejected in the case of the sewage complaints.

Both the proximity of MITto Kennedy Biscuit Lofts and the Institute's peripheral involvement in the suit has irritated the tenants.

In an a letter last year to the Institute, Michael Padnos, the lawyer representing the tenants association, marveled at MIT's seeming inability to solve the flooding problem.

"The Tenants' Association now acknowledges that their faith in MIT may have been misplaced. The Association acknowledges that the flooding at Kennedy Biscuit may truly be a problem beyond the ability of MIT's engineers,"Padnos wrote.

He proceeded to suggest that the Institute seek assistance from engineers at Tulane University, Tufts University, or the California Institute of Technology in order to combat the routine flooding.

All in all, blame as been passed by many parties, Padnos said.

"The owner would like to tell you it's the city's fault. The law says it's the owner's fault," he said. "You can't just point your fingers at each other. This isn't Abbott and Costello. These are real people whose lives are affected."

City sewage system problematic

Flooding problems like this may be the result of a Cambridge sewer system that does not function properly during severe storms.

During heavy rainfalls, a considerable amount of rainwater will flow through the sewage lines, said Owen Riordan, sewer division supervisor for the City of Cambridge. "The system is not able to cope, and it backs up,"he said.

The basement tenants of Kennedy Biscuit Lofts are acutely aware of this process. Once, after a heavy rainfall, Daugherty "walked past the bathroom and discovered a stinky brown waterfall. There was water coming in the street side of our unit."

In Cambridge, there are three types of sewage lines. One carries storm water, and one sanitary. The last variety of sewer is an old variety which carries a combination of sanitary and storm flow.

The combined type of sewer normally flows to a collection system. During times of heavy flow, the collection system cannot deal with the workload, and the system may surcharge. On a very infrequent basis, the combined sewage lines will divert to the Charles River, Riordan said.

The sewage line problems are compounded by the fact that "A much larger proportion of the surface of the city is hard rather than soft," said Director of Planning O. Robert Simha MCP '57. As more of the city is covered in pavement, more water runoff enters the sewage system, he said.

Remedying the situation, from a sewage standpoint "is a question of time and money," Simha said. Combining the sewage flow was simply an economical way to provide service, he said.

"If it doesn't rain nobody has a problem," Simha said.

However, these sewage problems will not plague new MIT developments in the area. "In new construction, you install devices which preclude backup," he said.