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Housing appraisals lowball Santurce
by J.A. Del Rosario
Of The San Juan Star Staff

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Area residents who praised the plan when it was announced

In 2001 are now protesting the gentrification of their neighborhoods

Because they saw they won't be able to afford to live there.

Recent real estate trasactions in central Santurce support residents' claims that the government is paying below-market prices in its ongoing expropiations.

Homes around central Santurce are currently selling for roughly $530 per square meter, according to comparable sales reports issued by real estate appraisal firm Luis Abreu & Associates.

Comparable sales reports are used by the real estate and finance industries to determine property values. The report is judged to be an accurate reflection of property values because it is composed of actual registered home sales.

In Santurce, the reports did not reflect any home sales for the $175 to $225 per square meter average that Housing has been paying in central Santurce. In fact, homes in Barrio Obrero and Villa Palmeras, low-income communities with a high percentage of immigrant workers, are selling for $400 to $450 per square meter.

The Housing Department, which is currently expropiating from owners in Santurce near th Puerto Rico Museum of Art has so far paid an average $225 per square meter for the residential property it has acquired, according to Property Adquisition & Relocation Management Corp. The company is carrying out expropiations under contract with the Housing Department.

A Housing official said any wide disparity in the appraisals could be due to a random mistake, not a pattern of undervaluating.

"There might be one or two cases, people are human and mistakes are made", said Housing Deputy Secretary Jorge Rivera Jiménez. "But a pattern of this would be anomalous. "

Housing is currently expropiating 70 properties in central Santurce to sell as five parcels of land for upscale commercial and residential developments. The expropiations are part of the government's Santurce Revitalization plan, a $900 million venture to renovate and repopulate Santurce’s urban hub.

But some area residents who praised the plan when it was announced in 2001 are now protesting the gentrification of their neighborhoods. The residents charge that the government's compensation for their property is not enough for them to buy one of the $250,000-and-up homes that will replace their properties. The average price per square meter that Housing has paid so far contradicts even the department's own estimates of the land value in Santurce. In the Environmental Impact Statement for the Santurce Revitalization Plan, Housing estimated the value of the land to be expropiated at $600 per square meter. A price that several area residents agree on.

"The ones who have money know what their land is worth, and they will not sell unless it is for the fair price," said Antonio Torres, or the San Mateo Community Action Board, a community group fighting the expropiations." It is the rest of the people, who don't have the means, who will get the short end of the stick.

Housing's Rivera Jiménez said he had complete faith in the accuracy and validity of the government’s appraisals. The deputy secretary also said that in the past, residents contesting government appraisals have relented to release the property but contested the value offered.

"There are cases when some people got up to 30 percent more than what was appraised," he said.

Yet Rivera was quick to point out that he has not seen such disparities in Santurce. "What some residents are describing are 100 percent disparities," he said. "I haven't seen anything like that."

But disparities may start with Housing's own transactions. While the department has purchased residential land at an average price or $200 per square meter, the department is so far reselling the land between $600 and $1,000 a square meter, according to department documents and purchasing contracts.

"If somebody comes here with evidence that there is something wrong with their appraisal, of course we would act immediately," said Rivera. "Our door is open, the truth will come out. You can be certain of that."

Housing Secretary Ileana Echegoyen told a public hearing at the Capitol last week that the property appraisals are available by request from Property Acquisition.

One owner of four homes on Iglesias Street has unsucessfully requested his appraisals by Certified Mail and plans to try in person on Wednesday.