Neighborhoods battle BPDA on affordability
Housing issues remain a challenge for city agency
In Chinatown last Wednesday, long-term neighborhood residents said three proposals for new hotels cast a shadow on their aspirations to stay in a community that is becoming increasingly unaffordable.
“Look around us,” said Chinese Progressive Association co-Director Karen Chen. “Chinatown is in the shadow of luxury towers. Row house tenants are being displaced building by building, block by block.”
In Dudley Square last Monday, Roxbury residents who came to a meeting to discuss community benefits and affordability in the Tremont Crossing project were nearly drowned out by a chorus of building trades members pressing for the speedy construction of the proposed 1-million-square-foot mixed-use development.
Meanwhile, as the cost of new housing was debated in Dudley Square, demonstrators turned out at City Hall Plaza to protest what they say is a lack of affordability in the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s JP/Rox plan for the redevelopment of the area along the Orange Line between Jackson Square and Forest Hills.
The demonstrations and vociferous opposition to planned and approved development projects underscore both the challenges the city faces in promoting construction to meet the growing need for housing in Boston and neighborhood activists’ strained relationships with the city departments that, to varying degrees, keep developers in check.
In projects large and small, neighborhood activists are pushing back against the city agencies designed to serve as intermediaries between the aspirations of real estate developers and the city’s residents.
But the conflict encompasses larger issues of community inclusion and control in projects like Tremont Crossing, where neighborhood residents are questioning whether the mix of housing, retail, office and cultural space will serve the interests of the Roxbury community. While 13 percent of the 720 units slated for the site are planned to be designated affordable to those making 60 percent of the HUD-designated Area Median Income, Councilor Tito Jackson noted that those units would be unaffordable to the 75 percent of Roxbury residents who earn less than $47,280 — 60 percent of the AMI.
“The people who live in our neighborhood cannot even afford the affordable units,” he said.
The new BRA?
Five months after the Boston Redevelopment Authority changed its name to the Boston Planning and Development agency as part of a rebranding effort, it remains unclear whether there has been any corresponding shift in the balance of power between neighborhood residents and real estate developers.
Plan JP/Rox — one of the first planning initiatives the agency has undertaken under the mayoral administration of Martin Walsh — has generated controversy with near-constant protests and confrontations from neighborhood activists, who complain the luxury apartment buildings for which city has been granting zoning variances are accelerating the pace of gentrification and displacement in a traditionally working class section of Jamaica Plain.
On Monday of last week, ahead of a planned BRA board meeting during which the final version of Plan JP/Rox was to be approved, more than 100 housing activists turned out to City Hall Plaza in protest.
During the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee meeting that same evening, Jackson, who is challenging Walsh in this year’s mayoral election, questioned the city’s commitment to stopping displacement of long-term residents.
“Are we using public land, even in the affordable units, to gentrify people out of our neighborhood?” he said.
While affordability often dominates discussions of new housing, density and parking remain areas of concern for abutters to projects in Boston’s neighborhoods. While many urban planners have adopted the doctrine of “smart growth,” with its emphasis on walkable neighborhoods and dense housing sited near public transportation, abutters to new apartment and condominium buildings say the absence of off-street parking will not likely deter new residents from bringing new cars to neighborhoods already starved for space.
Those concerns pitted abutters on Fuller Street in the Ashmont section of Dorchester against the Zoning Board of Appeal, which gave developer James O’Sullivan the green light to tear down a single-family home and build six units. A similar battle is brewing Juniper Street in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury, where City Realty is seeking to shoehorn a pair of multifamily homes in the backyard of another condominium development.
The city’s continued willingness to approve projects over the opposition of abutters underscores the tension between the Walsh administration’s goal of building 53,000 new units of housing by 2030, so as to accommodate a population expected to rise to 700,000 residents from the current 645,000 and relieve pressure on the city’s rental market.
While many homeowners and affordable housing advocates may view the building boom with apprehension, judging from the several dozen union activists who packed the Roxbury Strategic Masterplan Oversight Committee meeting Monday, building trades members are more enthusiastic.
By the third quarter last year, developers in Boston had 18,786 units permitted or completed and another 21,720 in the planning pipeline. If all the 40,500 units planned or under development are actually built, the Walsh administration will be more than three-quarters of the way to its 53,000-unit goal.
Boston, like many cities around the world, has seen gentrification begin in its downtown areas and radiate out into more residential neighborhoods. Historically black neighborhoods like the back slope of Beacon Hill in the 19th and early 20th century and the South End until the 1980s have been among the first reclaimed by well-heeled buyers.
Chinatown — a compact neighborhood ringed in by the financial district, the South Boston waterfront and the South End — has long withstood the gentry’s push in the Boston’s urban core. But with the increasing number of luxury high rises like the Millennium Tower and the Ink Block development, the low-income residents of the traditionally immigrant neighborhood are feeling the pressure from real estate developers.
Nowhere in Boston is the gap between wealth and poverty greater than in Chinatown, where restaurant workers subsist by working multiple shifts at minimum wage while an 850-square foot luxury one-bedroom apartment rents for $3,300 a month. The rents fetched in the new luxury towers rising above the historic neighborhood are pushing landlords to raise rents in the row houses and tenements that for decades have served as the heart of Boston’s Chinese immigrant community.
“Rents are going up. All living expenses are going up. Everything is going up except our pay,” said Karen Chen, speaking in front of a picket line outside 25 Harrison Ave, a former rooming house whose current owner is seeking to build a hotel.
Chinatown’s population has doubled since the year 2000 and the number of market-rate units has increased six-fold as rooming houses have converted to luxury residences.
In the midst of the Chinatown building boom, Chen and other Chinatown activists are calling on the city and state to commit the few remaining parcels of public land in Chinatown to affordable housing. The activists face an uphill challenge. Public land owned by the state must be sold to the highest bidder by state law. But the prospect of more luxury towers and hotels doesn’t sit well with Chen.
On a parcel of land owned by the state Transportation Department sits Reggie Wong Park, where restaurant workers come to play volleyball and other sports. With developers keen to build in Chinatown, Chen and other activists worry that the fabric of the community could be riven by the backhoes brought in to excavate the foundation of yet another luxury tower.
“We’re here to say we have a right to our community, a right to a home,” Chen said on the picket line. “Housing is a human right.”