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Concerns, ideas aired at gentrification hearing

Some Rox. residents call for building moratorium

Karen Morales
Concerns, ideas aired at gentrification hearing
City Councilors Lydia Edwards and Kim Janey address Roxbury residents gathered at the Bolling Building for a hearing on gentrification. Banner Photo

At a Boston City Council hearing on gentrification and displacement in Roxbury last week, city officials listened and responded to residents’ demands for solutions on keeping housing affordable and accessible.

Melinda Stewart addresses city councilors. Banner Photo

A Roxbury resident addresses city councilors. Banner Photo

More than 300 people crowded the School Committee Chamber in the Bruce C. Bolling Building and over 60 public testimonies were heard at the Nov. 13 hearing sponsored by City Councilor Kim Janey and joined by councilors Lydia Edwards, Michael Flaherty and Michelle Wu.

Local community organizers offered up concrete proposals to increase affordable housing and curb predatory development in Roxbury, and residents who were evicted or in danger of being evicted shared their personal experiences.

Among the solutions proposed at the hearing was a call by residents, community groups and neighborhood associations for a moratorium on future Roxbury development, as well as real estate vacancy taxes, rent control legislation and regional efforts to build more housing units.

Janey said the purpose of the meeting was to focus on finding solutions to the city’s housing crisis, because “income levels are not at pace with rising housing costs.”

To further illustrate the issue, the councilor cited a number of troubling figures. The average home price in Roxbury is $680,000, and according to the American Communities Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Roxbury is $30,278. In addition, she said, 81 percent of housing in Roxbury is renter-occupied.

Flaherty said in his opening remarks that he wants to welcome a conversation about rent control, a proposal that was repeated numerous times throughout the public testimonies.

City officials responded to the continued demands by residents for a moratorium on any future development and planning in Roxbury, as well as offered updates on the city’s latest efforts to keep up with the housing crisis. 

Sarah Myerson, director of planning at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, said, “Planning is a process and we want the community to be engaged in it.” She said the BPDA hears residents’ calls for a moratorium, but the agency would rather “focus on a more productive dialogue.”

Adding to this, Sheila Dillon, chief of housing and director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) said that the majority of DND development includes deeply affordable housing units and “hundreds of people are on waiting lists for those units. These are people who actually really need housing right now and we can’t slow down that process or stop it.”

Dillon said that the city recently made $29 million available to add 900 new deed-restricted housing units and Mayor Martin Walsh’s 2030 Housing Plan was updated to ramp up efforts to take existing housing units out of the speculative market and make them permanently affordable.

According to DND data, there are over 10,000 affordable units in Roxbury and more than 8,000 of them are privately owned. Dillon said that 4,600 of these units are at limited risk of losing their affordability because they are owned by nonprofits, 3,200 have been preserved as affordable for at least the next 15 years, and 66 units are at elevated risk of losing their affordability.

Bill McGonagle, administrator for the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), said that the BHA has struggled with inadequate federal funding and one “creative strategy” they are implementing is “one-for-one replacement.”

According to McGonagle, the BHA has been leveraging the value of the land that some subsidized housing developments, such as Lenox/Camden and Bunker Hill are sitting on, and requiring developers to replace and renovate dilapidated units, while still preserving their affordability for existing residents.

Proposed solutions

Armani White, a member of Reclaim Roxbury, an organization dedicated to giving residents a voice in city planning, denounced the BPDA’s PLAN Dudley and called for a moratorium on the “selling of Roxbury’s public land” until all of residents’ concerns have been addressed.

“Our idea for community land trusts hasn’t been looked at by the BPDA as a real solution,” said White. “Planning should adhere to neighborhood governance. We refuse to let Roxbury be sold off.”

Michael Kane, executive director of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants, said at the hearing that his organization works to save subsidized housing units that are approaching their contract lease term limits. He said there are 230 apartment units in Grove Hall approaching the end of their contracted subsidized leases in the coming years and “it would be helpful if we can get legislation to require building owners in the city to renew contract and rent control buildings,” he said.

While Mayor Walsh signed the home rule petition, otherwise known as the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act in 2017, to ensure tenants are aware of their rights under State law, Kane said “the city has not lobbied for it at the State House.”

Kane said that there are currently 1,800 luxury units in Boston, and according to a 2018 Institute of Policy Studies report, there are another 5,100 luxury units in the pipeline. “There’s about $57 million of property taxes generated from those 1,800 condos, and another $101 million in new property tax revenue in the next three years from the upcoming 5,100 units.”

He said, “That’s enough to subsidize 10,000 apartment units for extremely low-income families.”

Jessicah Pierre of the Institute of Policy Studies said that more than 35 percent of the 1,800 luxury units in Boston, with an average price of $3 million, are owned by LLCs and trusts. A large number of them were purchased through cash transactions.

“These are red-flag transactions from global hidden wealth and shadowy systems masking ownership,” she said. “This is not local gentrification, this is supercharged global wealth hitting the city right now.”

Pierre proposed that Boston should pass a vacancy tax for properties sitting empty for more than six months a year and increase disclosure measures in real estate transactions. 

“We propose the BPL test: In order to get library card, you have to provide proof of residency. We should provide the same proof for buying real estate,” said Pierre.

Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said that every city and town in Massachusetts needs to do their part in building more affordable housing. “Every community needs to make a local commitment, and as Councilor Flaherty said, we in this state need to have an adult conversation on rent control, eviction control and condo conversion control,” he said.

Jeanette Callahan of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization also testified, encouraging the city to go after Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) from local universities and hospitals in order to help raise “$50 million over five years to put 1,000 folks into homes,” she said. According to Callahan, the plan to increase homeownership for 1,000 families in Massachusetts is a collective initiative with other organizations such as Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance and the DND.

Lived experiences

Roxbury resident Kimberly Lyles testified at last Tuesday’s hearing, describing various family members having to move out of Boston to places like Taunton or Randolph.

“Where is the housing for them?” she said. “Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents survived redlining, white flight, bussing, disinvestment, urban renewal and other attacks on the community to make a place for us here.”

She directed her statement towards the city councilors. “Stop ignoring abutters. Take legislative action to rescind questionable variances, amend article 50 to set limits to up-zoning, support homeownership programs and base affordability in Roxbury on local incomes, not just the Area Median Income.”

Will Justice, an organizer for Reclaim Roxbury, said he feels disrespected by city officials and developers taking ownership of the neighborhood. “You’re telling us you’re valuing the money that comes in, not us,” he said.

Shannon Booker, a single mother from Roxbury, shared her story about raising a son with disabilities, but after being priced out from her home, had to move to Brockton where, she said, “I don’t know anyone.”

Bridgette Wallace, a homeowner in Roxbury, said that there is a “rebranding of neighborhoods” to reinforce the idea that “we are disposable,” she said. For example, a new hotel on Melnea Cass Boulevard was advertised as an extension of Downtown Boston. “Do not buy into the marketing tactics, do not sell your homes,” she said, addressing her fellow residents.

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