Sahr and Baindu Josiah-Faeduwor have operated Bintimani in Roxbury since 2009. In the 11 years since opening, the Sierra Leonean restaurant has become a pillar of Boston’s small but vibrant West African dining scene. Tucked away inside a shopping center colloquially referred to as Mr. G’s Plaza at 1127 Harrison Ave. in Nubian Square (formerly known as Dudley Square), the small shop quickly made a name for itself with dishes like spicy okra sauce; whole fried tilapia; crain crain, a dark green stew made of mallow leaves; and foo foo, a sticky dough ball made from cassava meant for dipping, which is typical of various cuisines from West Africa and the Caribbean.
The Josiah-Faeduwors told Eater in 2017 that Mr. G’s Plaza was an ideal location for a restaurant because it functioned as a hub of economic activity and foot traffic. They dreamed of expanding one day — the kitchen at Bintimani isn’t much bigger than a home kitchen, and the dining room can only accommodate eight customers — but they were also happy where they were. They were cooking the food they grew up with, and they were doing so for growing ranks of regular customers.
But that was before the Boston Real Estate Collaborative (BREC) bought the building, in January 2019, and later allegedly evicted its linchpin tenant, Roger Garvin — commonly known as Mr. G — who operated an eponymous furniture and general merchandise store and a beauty salon inside the shopping center.
Following the end of his tenure in the shopping center, Garvin opened a new store nearby. He declined to comment for this story. As of publication, BREC has not responded to Eater’s request for comment regarding the details of Garvin’s alleged eviction. Eater filed a public information request with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department to get a clearer picture of BREC’s eviction history, including with regard to Garvin. The department’s assistant general counsel told Eater it is working with a limited staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will respond to the request accordingly. This post will be updated if and when that information is made available.
The alleged eviction of Garvin and the closing of his store meant less revenue for Bintimani, according to Sahr Josiah-Faeduwor. He and his son Aiyah, who has been helping his parents in their attempt to stave off eviction, said that the sudden loss of the building’s anchor tenant made it difficult for Bintimani to pay rent. Eater spoke with several other tenants at 1127 Harrison Ave., none of whom indicated that they were struggling to pay rent.
Sahr Josiah-Faeduwor said he and his wife have continued to pay some amount of rent each month, but they haven’t been able to afford the full bill, a problem he said has been exacerbated by the pandemic. And now they’re facing eviction.
Scott Kirkwood, who works as a project and operations manager for BREC, told Eater that he did not feel at liberty to divulge financial information regarding BREC’s business relationship with the Josiah-Faeduwors. As of publication time, BREC has not responded to Eater’s request for comment regarding the Josiah-Faeduwors’ claims about depressed foot traffic and its impact on their ability to pay rent, nor has it confirmed or denied that the Josiah-Faeduwors were paying some amount of their rent each month.
“You know, we are the only Sierra Leonean restaurant in Boston,” Sahr Josiah-Faeduwor said. “And our food is very unique. And people love it. And [under normal circumstances,] we have a large number of people who come to buy our food. Now, these guys decide they want to close us [down].”
An attorney representing BREC sent the Josiah-Faeduwors a Notice to Quit on August 28, informing them that they had until September 30 to close their restaurant and vacate the premises, otherwise BREC could go to court to request permission to evict. In Massachusetts, landlords issue Notice to Quit letters to tenants who have failed to pay rent, signaling the beginning of an eviction procedure.
Massachusetts currently has a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures in place until October 17, 2020, which protects homeowners, renters, and small-business owners like the Josiah-Faeduwors. However, BREC may use a loophole in the state’s moratorium to evict the Josiah-Faeduwors sooner than it would otherwise be able to. In its Notice to Quit letter, BREC’s attorney wrote:
As you may be aware, there is an exemption to the current moratorium on evictions which permits evictions of small business tenants due to a lease default that occurred before the March 10, 2020 declaration of the COVID-19 emergency. This exemption applies in this case since you have been in default of your payment obligations under the lease since March 2019.
According to BREC’s Notice to Quit letter, the Josiah-Faeduwors owe them $9,423.47, a debt that began to accrue in March 2019. It is unclear if the debt began to accrue before or after Garvin’s alleged eviction. Kirkwood told Eater that “there are obviously obstacles to having to go this path, but we firmly believe that it is the correct path to go” and that it is a “matter of fairness for other tenants in the building as well and trying to get the building to a place where we can create a more profitable situation for everyone.”
Sahr Josiah-Faeduwor told Eater that he believes he is being singled out.
“It seems to me that they have an ulterior motive,” said Sahr Josiah-Faeduwor. “They gave me, and only me, the Notice to Quit. And I wonder about that. I thought this was going to be a collective thing that they were going to do with all of us. So to single me out kind of raises a red flag. I mean, if they’re going to treat us all the same, I can live with that. But for them to do this? It kind of worries me.”
As of publication time, BREC has not responded to Eater’s request for comment regarding Sahr Josiah-Faeduwors’ concern that he and his wife are being treated differently than other tenants.
Sahr Josiah-Faeduwor believes he’s being singled out because he sought advice from City Life/Vida Urbana, an organization based in Boston that provides free guidance for people facing foreclosure or eviction, and Boston Main Streets, which helps maintain robust commercial districts across the city, after BREC bought Mr. G’s Plaza in January 2019. He said he began to post flyers that read “We will not be moved” in his restaurant and on its facade, which he told Eater were routinely removed by representatives from BREC. Representatives from City Life/Vida Urbana and Boston Main Streets have not responded to Eater’s request for comment as of publication time.
“[BREC] did a presentation where they talked about what their plans for the building were,” said Aiyah Josiah-Faeduwor, who told Eater BREC’s plans involved a temporary shutdown of occupancy throughout the building while renovations were ongoing. The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) received an application to demolish the 1127 Harrison Ave. property, which was delayed as of June 1. An employee with the City of Boston confirmed with Eater that the BLC reviewed and approved the application to demolish, but was not aware of the demolition schedule or the status of the building’s current tenants.
Aiyah and Sahr Josiah-Faeduwor told Eater that they and other tenants had a follow-up conversation with BREC to get a better understanding of how a temporary shutdown would impact their businesses, and whether they could expect to remain in the building once renovations had been finished. The Josiah-Faeduwors didn’t feel as though BREC’s plans included Bintimani or the other tenants of Mr. G’s Plaza.
“We spoke with their team, and they pretty clearly communicated that they would be renovating the first floor, and that the businesses would not be able to remain in there while they were renovating,” said Aiyah Josiah-Faeduwor. “And then they [said they] would put out a call for proposals from businesses that would want to be there, and the current tenants would have to re-apply, essentially, but they would not be guaranteed tenancy. So, you know, we obviously saw that as a problem.”
According to its website, BREC plans to transform Mr. G’s Plaza into a mixed-use facility that will include retail space and co-living units. In its description of the property, BREC recognizes the significance of 1127 Harrison Ave., and Nubian Square more broadly, and claims its proposed renovations would revitalize and preserve the neighborhood’s existing business community.
Three other tenants with whom Eater spoke said that BREC has been a fair landlord since purchasing the building. They also said that BREC has promised them tenancy in the building once renovations have been completed but has not yet put anything in writing, a fact that makes some of them uneasy. As of publication time, BREC has not responded to Eater’s request for comment regarding whether it plans to offer tenancy to its current tenants once renovations are complete, nor has it said whether it will put those offers in writing. BREC has also not responded to Eater’s request for comment regarding Sahr Josiah-Faeduwor’s claim that the company removed “We will not be moved” signs from his restaurant.
Kirkwood said that BREC has not raised rent at the Nubian Square property — the Josiah-Faeduwors confirmed this with Eater — and that its goal is to avoid displacing its tenants. He told Eater that the pandemic has been difficult for BREC, too.
“We are quite literally supporting the building out of our own pockets to try to make sure people can stay in there,” Kirkwood said. “I’m not going to say we’re suffering like anyone in the building or other people throughout Boston. I would never say that, but there are struggles on our end, on both ends, and when push comes to shove, you sometimes have to make tough decisions.”
Kirkwood told Eater that BREC has a track record of buying “underutilized,” “dilapidated,” or “burned out” buildings and renovating them. He also said that BREC is “not in the business of coming into neighborhoods and evicting people, it’s just not what we do.” BREC has purchased and developed property across the city, and its website suggests it has a particular appetite for Roxbury and the South End, two neighborhoods that were redlined by the Federal Housing Administration. Indeed, many of the Boston-based properties BREC lists on its website, including the building at 1127 Harrison Ave., are in formerly redlined neighborhoods.
Redlining began with the National Housing Act of 1934, which created a legal framework that allowed the FHA to refuse to insure mortgages in and near Black neighborhoods. The FHA simultaneously subsidized builders who were producing housing for white people, as long as none of the homes were sold to Black people. This racist federal housing policy — which lasted from 1934 until 1968, when the Fair Housing Act, which proved fair in name only, banned racial discrimination in housing — precipitated deep segregation in many American cities and is largely responsible for the substantial wealth gap between white families and Black families. It’s not coincidental that real estate and development companies frequently buy properties in neighborhoods with historically large Black and non-white populations, such as Roxbury and the South End. The legacy of dispossession isn’t buried in the distant past; it’s contemporary and ongoing.
To be clear, BREC would be within its rights as a landlord to evict Bintimani before the moratorium expires, and the Josiah-Faeduwors aren’t the only restaurant owners in Boston facing eviction. State and federal legislatures have done precious little to help restaurant owners, which has led to an onslaught of closures throughout the city, and the country more broadly.
Bintimani could be the next Boston restaurant to close, but its owners surely aren’t the only ones behind on rent. In the absence of government support at the federal level and more comprehensive eviction moratorium policies, many independent small-business owners like the Josiah-Faeduwors are bearing the untempered financial consequences of the pandemic. Eviction might present a difficult situation for landlords like BREC, but it presents an existential threat to restaurant owners like the Josiah-Faeduwors.
• Bintimani Coverage on Eater [EBOS]