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Affordable housing on public land top priority

Catherine McGloin
Affordable housing on public land top priority
Photo by Catherine McGloin

As Boston’s supply of public land dwindles, residents and community land trustees met with city councilors last Thursday to ask that affordable housing be prioritized in any future development plans for the few remaining parcels.

Amid the city’s displacement crisis, two panels testified at a Sept. 27 hearing before the City Council Committee on Planning, Development and Transportation to discuss the disposition, stewardship and future use of public land. The first panel was made up of representatives from Boston’s community land trusts and stewards.The second included Shelia Dillon, the city’s chief of housing and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), Devin Quirk, the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s (BPDA) newly appointed director of real estate, and Janet Carlson, a member of the BPDA’s legal team.

“We must expand and protect affordable housing, and we must ensure that communities have a say,” said Sharon Cho, coordinator for the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, which operates under the guidance of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). “We have to ensure that precious public land is used to stabilize our neighborhoods and to benefit our communities.”

Cho was not alone in calling for what’s left of Boston’s public land to be used primarily for affordable housing. She was joined on the first panel by Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust; Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana and a board member of the Coalition of Occupied Homes in Foreclosure (COHIF); Barbara Knecht, project leader at the Urban Farming Institute of Boston; and Tony Hernandez, director of the Dudley Neighbors Incorporated, a community land trust created by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.

“We believe that public land should only be used for public good … and should follow the needs of the community and not of those trying to get rich,” said Wayne Yeh, a representative from the Chinese Progressive Association, who gave testimony before the committee’s chair, Councilor Michelle Wu, and the hearing’s sponsor, Councilor Lydia Edwards, as well as Councilors Ed Flynn, Frank Baker, Matt O’Malley, Annissa Essaibi-George and Ayanna Pressley. “This will ensure Chinatown remains Chinatown,” Yeh added.

Chinatown is not the only neighborhood where displacement could be reversed if the city’s remaining stock of public land be used for affordable housing. Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan could also benefit, said Owens, whose organization COHIF — soon to be rebranded as the Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust — owns 15 properties in Dorchester. The group is focusing its efforts on supporting residents at risk of foreclosure along the Fairmount corridor, running from South Station through Upham’s Corner and the Geneva Avenue area, along Blue Hill Avenue to Readville. Owens said 83 percent of residents along this corridor are at risk of displacement.

City supply

The BPDA currently has 250 parcels of public land, amounting to 11 million square feet, in their portfolio. Of these properties, less than 50 are vacant and available for disposition, with the rest being actively leased or newly developed, Quirk told the committee. One of the largest parcels up for lease right now is the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park, a 191-acre former army and naval base along the South Boston Waterfront.

Dillon admitted that the DND is running out of city owned land and that the majority of her department’s 466 parcels currently undergoing disposition are small public lots, between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet.

“I think we’re doing right by Boston,” said Dillon, adding that since Jan. 1, 2014, the DND has sold 317 units of either surplus or foreclosed land, but would like to see more of it go to community land trusts. “I think the vast majority [of public land] is going for affordable housing and proper open space,” she said. “We have good dialogue and relationships with many, many neighborhood groups across the city.”

While representatives from land trusts largely agreed with Dillon that positive relationships have been forged between the DND, the BPDA and various community groups, they seemed less satisfied with the amount of affordable housing currently being built by city agencies.

“Given the severity of the displacement crisis, we have to use every tool at our disposal to protect people from displacement,” said Cho. “Continued housing growth without protections for affordability will only worsen displacement.”

While representatives from the Chinese Progressive Association demanded that 50 percent of homes built on disposed public land be affordable for long-term residents, Michael Kane, executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, said during public testimony that he would support the introduction of the South End Neighborhood Housing Initiative (SENHI) model, created in the 1980s.

The SENHI formula, which mandates that one-third of housing be suitable for low-income residents, one-third for moderate income renters and one-third be priced at market rate, has been embraced in the development of city-owned land in Dudley Square, but Kane said the formula could serve as a model for affordable housing quota minimums across the city.

Lowe would like to increase these minimums even further.

“There’s room for us to continue to push back a little as far as what we’re requiring,” she said. “If we look around at all of the luxury towers being built, there are millions and millions of dollars being made and I just think that we have the right to demand more of the development community.” Just how much more, Lowe and her fellow panelists did not specify.

When Edwards pressed the groups on the often-repeated claim that building affordable housing kills commercial construction, Lowe said that if the city is committed to community-driven development then they can’t be afraid of building homes for everyone, and risking potentially lucrative deals in the process.

“There are some deals we wouldn’t have minded losing,” said Lowe, in reference to Millennium Tower, built in the downtown area on public land formerly known as Hayward Place. A recent report revealed that 35 percent of its 443 units “are owned by shell corporations and trusts, and almost 80 percent of the units do not claim the residential exemption.” Half of the companies that own units in the tower are based in Delaware.

Edwards called the hearing “the beginning of a very important conversation about public land and about how it benefits community.”

“We want to make sure that when we talk about housing policy, that we all understand that you build a house from the ground up,” said Edwards. “Where the land is going, who owns it, who has access to it is vital to our conversations about housing justice and ensuring we are housing a Boston for all.”

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