Shifting Foundation

Two decades ago, the Burkitt Foundation saved the historic enclave of Hyde Park. But now the foundation is pulling out, and Hyde Park -- as well as many of the social service agencies it houses -- may really become a thing of the past.

Longtime Ryan acquaintance John Baur, who testified in the Checchi case that he witnessed Robert committing the forgery, remembers Robert's bragging about the Burkitt Foundation. "He made it sound like it was all his family's money," says Baur. At one point, Baur and Holmes say, Robert moved out of the house he shared with Checchi and into one of the Burkitt Foundation apartments (William Ryan denies this). And in the late '70s, the Burkitt Foundation loaned $42,800 to Checchi's grandmother to buy a condominium -- another unusual, if legal, investment for a private foundation. At the time, Holmes says, C.O. Ryan was Checchi's grandmother's lawyer.

The disposal of the Hyde Park homes could prove to be a good deal for Robert Ryan. If he takes the standard real-estate broker's fee of 3 percent, he'll receive $78,000 when the sales go through. In the past, C.O. has asked Robert to take a re-duced fee -- but what he'll receive this time, the Burkitt Foundation isn't saying.

While all of the Burkitt Foundation's tenants say they're thankful for the foundation's help up to now, many expressed dismay at the news that their houses were for sale.

The Kolbe Project, for instance, has a budget of $145,000 a year. With that money, the friars visit thousands of AIDS patients a year, and host potlucks and Catholic masses for gays and lesbians in the area. The project has received a request to vacate by September 30. When the Kolbe Project does have to move, director Ralph Lasher says, he has no idea where the friars will go. "I'm not sure we would even exist," he says, "if it weren't for the Burkitt Foundation."

One of the foundation's tenants has already received an eviction notice -- the International Center for the Solution of Environmental Problems, which was told to be out of its Commonwealth Street house by July 31 (so far, though, it hasn't left). A little over a year ago, center director Joe Goldman moved his organization to a Burkitt Foundation house that occupied three lots on Commonwealth. The property -- purchased as a residence for Bishop McCarthy before he became a foundation director -- was a good match for an environmental research group because the grounds afforded room for compost piles and gardens. The only problem was the decrepit condition of the long-vacant house. In the family room, the wooden walls were so rotten you could punch a pencil through them.

Nevertheless, Goldman thought the place could be restored, and says he told the Burkitt Foundation that his group would consider buying it. The foundation gave the environmental center a two-year lease, and Goldman's staff and volunteers proceeded to re-roof and dry-wall parts of the house, replace vents and install windows and build a greenhouse in the back. Then Goldman learned the Burkitt Foundation had entered into a contract with someone else to sell the property.

William Ryan says he was never aware that the Center for the Solution of Environmental Problems intended to purchase its property. "There's nothing in the files," William says. "And I asked my dad, 'Did you tell them they could buy this?' And he said, 'I don't remember saying that.' " As for the two years Goldman was promised, William says that when a tenant doesn't pay rent, their lease isn't enforceable. "You must realize," he notes, "that these are people who have received free use of this property. They have not paid anything, have not paid a dime."

For his part, Beatty insists he told C.O. that the organization was interested in the property. He points out that the lease included a non-standard provision that would credit money spent on improvements against the purchase price. William Ryan says he's read the lease, and "didn't see any

provision like that." He declined to show the lease, but a copy of the document clearly notes that "in the event the Tenant decides to make an offer to purchase the premises, it shall be entitled to have the market value of all capital improvements applied as a credit toward the purchase price."

The Ryans insist that they want to help organizations through the transition period -- though they won't guarantee them future financial support. Following questions from the Press, the Ryans met with Goldman and offered him funds for moving expenses, then, a day later, offered him the chance to purchase a Burkitt Foundation property that had not yet been sold -- a large house on Castle Court that was formerly used by the Houston Area Women's Center. Wellsprings has also been given the opportunity to buy the Castle Court property. But Wellsprings, William complains, has not been easy to communicate with.

"It just seems to me like Wellsprings has some problems with their decision-making in their organization," William says. "They have a board, it's mostly all volunteer, the founders who founded it are rather old now. It's sometimes easier to deal with change when you're young. They've been living in that Lee House now for 15 years and they just figured it would never end."

Actually, as 60-year-old Sister Rita explains during a tour of the Wellsprings facilities, the organization has been in this location since its inception in 1988. As new houses became available in the area, the Burkitt Foundation let Wellsprings convert them into places where women who are "trying to get their lives together" could do just that. During the day, the sitting rooms of the four houses are pretty much vacant; the twin beds in the old, high-ceilinged rooms upstairs are neatly made up with purple comforters. Sunlight pours through the tall casement windows. A walk-in pantry is stocked with food bank provisions, which the residents cook and serve in a family-style dining room. The reason there are no residents around, explains Sister Rita as she bustles about, is that they're all out training, looking for work or volunteering at other charities.

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