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Roxbury neighbors spar over affordable housing

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Roxbury neighbors spar over affordable housing

In many ways, the Bartlett Place development plans capture the many different aspirations of its Roxbury neighbors, with affordable and market-rate apartments and townhouses, retail shops and a public space for art and commerce.

In the architectural renderings, these elements are woven together in a cohesive community. But in the wider Roxbury community, a gulf divides proponents of low-income or market-rate housing, and rental or ownership opportunities, a rift becoming heated as more large real estate developments take shape in Roxbury. In public meetings, approval hearings, petitions and letters, questions of affordable housing, “gentrification” and economic opportunity spark impassioned debate among developers, city officials and community members hungry for economic prosperity.

“The mix of housing in Roxbury, present and future, is one of the most critical planning issues of our time,” City Councilor Tito Jackson said in a recent interview.

Plans for the massive Bartlett Place development approved last fall have angered some community members who say the project’s delay in home ownership opportunities and over-emphasis on affordable housing reflects a dim view of Roxbury’s potential. The project by Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation and Windale Developers is slated to bring new residential, retail, office and public uses to the 8.6-acre former MBTA bus yard a few blocks outside Dudley Square in the Highland Park neighborhood. The multi-phased construction is expected to start later this year and continue over five to 10 years.

Rodney Singleton, a Fort Hill homeowner and moderator of a Highland Park neighborhood online discussion group, has advocated for owner-occupied units to be built in the first phase of construction. He has argued passionately in meetings, online discussions and public letters that home ownership is what will build wealth in Roxbury and enable residents to withstand rising property values without being displaced.

“The [Request for Proposal] for Bartlett said first and foremost, ‘opportunities to build wealth,’” said Singleton, who served on the project review committee, “but right out of the gate, the first building at Bartlett Place gives no wealth-building. Just renting.”

While the project’s long-term master plan includes rental apartments and townhouses, documents for phase one filed in 2013 with the Boston Redevelopment Authority indicate 60 affordable rental apartments and 42 market-rate rental apartments, along with some retail, commercial and public plaza space.

This angers Singleton, who has argued not just for home-buying opportunities to come sooner, but for a higher proportion of market-priced housing. The RFP suggested either 85 percent market and 15 percent affordable or an equal three-way split of market-rate, middle-income affordable and low-income affordable. Singleton’s view is that Roxbury is already “saturated” with affordable housing, and that continuing to prioritize it sends a fatalistic message that local residents will never move up the economic ladder.

“The idea that we should assume Roxbury will always be poor is a failed policy,” he said.

Nearly half of all existing housing units in Roxbury are designated affordable, according to the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, meaning they are rented or sold at a below-market price only to people who meet income eligibility requirements, usually a certain percent below the area median income number.

Roxbury still struggles with low income and high unemployment, and thus a problematic issue is that the market price of Bartlett Place townhouses will likely be at least $400,000, based on the simple costs of construction.

Singleton acknowledges this price is out of reach for the majority of local residents and the homes could end up going to buyers from outside the community. But some locals, he insists, can buy at market rate.

“Do I think there are people ready? Absolutely. A lot? No,” he said. “But I put faith in the idea that people are living in Roxbury and waiting for an opportunity [to buy].”

Victoria Nadel, an attorney who lives in Mission Hill but is looking to buy a Highland Park home, concurs that Roxbury already holds its share of affordable housing.

“The scholarly research shows that having concentrations of affordable housing in certain areas has a negative effect,” she said. “What you really want is first rate, market rate housing, so people can invest in the neighborhood.”

Nadel argues that Roxbury residents shouldn’t be afraid of neighborhood improvements, which many fear will bring inevitable displacement of longtime residents.

“Why shouldn’t Roxbury be beautiful? Why shouldn’t we have cute storefronts supported by Main Streets?” she said. “We saw what happened in the South End, and I think what happened there is good. The neighborhood got safer and nicer, the shops provide jobs, and cafes provide foot traffic.”

But not everyone is ready to shun affordable housing — and not everyone sees the South End as a reassuring example.

“We need more affordable housing for people who live and work in Roxbury,” said Audrey Dickerson, a retired licensed independent clinical social worker and Roxbury native. She serves as board president of St. Joseph’s Community — a stone’s throw from the Bartlett Place site — and expressed support for the Bartlett Place plans. She bristles at the idea Roxbury has “too much” affordable housing.

“I don’t want to see Roxbury gentrify like the South End and Jamaica Plain. People who look like me need to be able to live in the community,” said Dickerson, who is of Afro-Cuban descent.

Former city councilor and longtime Roxbury activist Chuck Turner puts the issue in the larger historical and racial context, and in forceful terms.

“For a people who have spent 400 years here and been systematically robbed of our labor and value, to have a debate over whether those who can’t afford it should be thrown out does a disservice,” Turner said.

Turner cited income figures from the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts’s 2010 “State of Black Boston” report. The report paints a bleak picture, showing low home-ownership rates and a high foreclosure toll in Boston’s black community, higher unemployment among blacks, and a median black household income of $33,420, roughly half that of white households ($63,980).

“We have lower incomes as a people,” Turner said. “Half the families in our community don’t have enough money to afford a one-bedroom apartment. Does that mean the majority of us have to leave? If that’s the answer, then to hell with democracy — let’s admit that we as black people can spend 40 or 50 years building up a community and then get driven out because the people who own the houses we are renting decide they can sell them for more money.”

Councilor Jackson sees the appeal of having more market-rate housing, but also the unintended consequences.

“Market rate is what’s allowed Mission Hill to be dominated by students,” he noted. “We need to be careful what we’re asking for.”

Despite widely differing philosophical viewpoints, a general consensus seems to be forming that a mix of one-third market-rate, one-third middle-income affordable, and one-third lower-income affordable strikes a fair balance for new housing. Jackson has been a strong proponent of that equal mix. But he also supports the Bartlett Place project, touting its short-term benefit of filling in a former pollution-generating eyesore and its long-term promise of mixed-income housing, new jobs and cultural programming.

The people interviewed for this story expressed a strong opinion that it is illogical to separate the housing topic from the bigger picture of economic conditions. They shared a sense of urgency and an outpouring of thoughts on possible paths toward lowering housing costs or raising income and wealth so community residents can afford to rent or buy where they wish.

Turner and Dickerson strongly believe in co-ops, where tenants have an ownership share and can accumulate some equity and benefit from low monthly payments and homeowner tax benefits. Turner is working on initiatives to require local corporations to hire city residents and offer summer jobs to every Boston teenager, and to promote a minimum “living wage” for the city.

Jackson cites Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s Community Land Trust as a successful model for permanent housing affordability. His policy focus is on “lifting through entrepreneurship” as well as pushing large Boston institutions to purchase and hire locally and working to shift the city’s linkage and inclusionary zoning programs to create more non-luxury housing, he said.

Singleton and Nadel suggested engaging philanthropists to fill in the gap between the cost of housing construction and the price middle-income buyers can pay, and Nadel proposed exploring high-quality modular housing to save costs. “We are so tied down to the boxes we’ve created,” said Nadel. “We have no way of saying ‘What if?’”

David Price, executive director of Nuestra Comunidad, expressed support for the City of Boston’s recently formed Middle Income Housing initiative, in which city-owned vacant land will be made available to small builders at below market prices in order to build at lower cost. And his organization promotes first-time homebuyer education to help people work out a long term strategy for buying and to avoid victimization by subprime mortgage lenders.

As for the Bartlett Place accusations, Price told the Banner that the project plan has always been to do rental apartments along Washington Street and for-purchase townhouses up the hill on the Guild Street side. City officials wanted the Washington Street side developed early to improve the streetscape, Price said.

But he also said that with an improving economy and more available financing for ownership units, it is conceivable that 20 to 25 for-purchase townhouses could be built at the same time as the first two rental buildings, starting construction in 2015.

“We’re not really talking about it as ‘phase numbers’ because that implies a linear order. I think that has contributed to some misunderstanding,” he said, pointing to a model of the project in the Nuestra Comunidad office. “For instance, this is ‘Building B’ and this is ‘E1,’ but they may be built at the same time.”

Until recently, Price said, it has been hard to secure financing for condos, as lenders expect a portion of the units to be pre-sold but the market wasn’t strong enough. Developers in other parts of the city have also been choosing rental over for-sale units, he pointed out. However, now there is a program through MassHousing that may enable them to build middle-income housing with a price tag of $300,000 or lower, he said. With this program, pre-sales would not be necessary.

“Our original proposal approved six years ago was 25 percent market, 15 moderate and 60 percent affordable — but we’re much more optimistic now,” he said. “With this middle-income program, we think we can get much closer to 1/3-1/3-1/3, so that’s really good, I think.”

Price listed other Bartlett Place features he feels will foster wealth-building: at least a dozen small retail spaces available for local businesses to relocate, start or expand; a public plaza with economic activity such as a public market, pushcarts, food trucks, art and performances; a new grocery store (which he declined to name) that has committed to hiring 50 local people in full-time and part-time jobs; and opportunities for youth in both grocery and construction jobs.

Housing and economic development are pressing issues, and far from easy. The Roxbury community has much to gain and much to lose in the rising wave of new developments. With concerned residents galvanized and a new mayoral administration finding its footing, now may be the ideal time for a matching wave of brainstorming and action.

Jackson noted that while market-rate and middle-rate housing are key areas to pursue, Boston is still at an all-time high for homeless families, and in some affordable apartment buildings, expiring 40-year mortgages are leading to sudden leaps to market rent, displacing residents.

“We need a real, accurate and in-depth conversation,” said Jackson. “We need to look at the folks living in Roxbury today, and look at the market, and put together thoughtful policies to move forward.”

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