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Jamaica Plain tenants fight for affordable rents

Anna Lamb
Jamaica Plain tenants fight for affordable rents
City of Boston Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon addresses tenants as Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants Director Michael Kane looks on. PHOTO: ANNA LAMB

More than 50 tenants, supporters and elected officials gathered outside the Forbes building on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain Saturday morning, demanding that action be taken to secure affordable rents for nearly 150 elderly and disabled low-income residents.

The tenants, many of whom have lived in the building for years, say they face evictions and hardship as the building’s owner, Paul Clayton, has yet to renew agreements with the city and state to keep rents affordable. The Forbes building, which opened in 1976 with a combination of affordable units protected through the state’s 13A program, has been in limbo since the program’s expiration in 2019.

Of the options to keep the building affordable, the city and state have both come to the bargaining table with subsidies — the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) and Project Based Vouchers (PBVs) from the Boston Housing Authority (BHA).

“They want to keep the building affordable,” said Michael Kane, director of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants (MAHT), which led Saturday’s rally.

He told the crowd gathered that Clayton has been the one standing in the way of successful negotiations — refusing to sign a subsidy agreement.

Kane added that the owner has yet to fill out applications for tax credits.

“Take away the anxiety and the fear of all the people that are looking at big rent increases in six weeks, and instead of holding them hostage, take care of that and then deal with the rest of your subsidy application,” Kane said.

According to the Forbes Building Tenant Association, a group that has worked in conjunction with MAHT over the last several years, there are 147 elderly, low-income disabled people in this building — 82 of whom signed a six-month lease extension in May. Their agreement, which temporarily has kept vulnerable residents in their homes, expires on Dec. 15.

Joyce Smith, who is in her mid-50s and has mobility issues, has lived in the building for seven years. She said if the rents were to increase, she would have nowhere to go.

“I would probably end up homeless,” she said. I don’t have any family, really.”

She added that most affordable housing units in the city have long waiting lists — some up to 10 or 20 years. Many developments don’t offer the type of amenities that are important to people like Smith.

“I was going to go to Harbor Point over there by UMass. I take Lyft, so I have a mode of transportation, but do I have the convenience of getting on the bus and only going to bus stops down the street? No,” she said.

State Rep. candidate Sam Montaño, who won the Democratic primary in September and is unopposed, spoke at Saturday’s rally on the state’s commitment to preserving affordability at the Forbes. The state has offered subsidies that would keep 113 apartments affordable for 20+ years.

Additionally, Montaño said she will fight to bring rent control back to Boston — an alternative route to regulate rents that activists at the Forbes have called for.

Last year, the Boston City Council passed a home rule petition that would give the city the authority to require owners to accept subsidy offers to regulate rents on “expiring use” buildings like the Forbes, where agreements have lapsed. If rent control were allowed in Massachusetts, owners like Clayton would be forced to agree to subsidies like the ones currently being offered.

“It’s going to the State House, where state representatives like Sam Montaño and Senator-elect Liz Miranda will take it from there, and we’re going to do the hard work to make sure that we can save the Forbes building and for all of the organizers here,” City Councilor Kendra Lara said.

Montaño promised to do her best to get the legislation passed.

“I’m looking forward to continuing to partner with you all and to carry this forward to the State House,” Montaño said.

In the meantime, the city has promised to supplement the state’s subsidy offer — with Boston’s Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon telling residents that Mayor Michelle Wu wants to protect the Forbes and other affordable housing across the city.

“Saving the Forbes is incredibly important to her,” Dillon said.

She added that negotiations are ongoing with Clayton, who is asking for a “significant” amount of funding.

“It is an enormous ask to the city and the state. But we’re all at the table. We’re all talking,” Dillon said.

A source in the Mayor’s Office of Housing declined to give an estimate of how much longer negotiations might take.

“It’s stressful. It’s uncertain,” Joyce Smith said. “But I’m not trying to let that get me. You know, I’m trying to do something about it.”