Reports set housing goals

October 6, 2006
By

JOHN RUCH

JP cited as model

Jamaica Plain is both a model and an area of concern in a new affordable housing agenda laid out in two reports published in August by a coalition of regional activists.

“JP’s a really interesting little microcosm,” said Kathy Brown, a JP resident and executive director of the Boston Tenant Coalition, one of the members of the Action for Regional Equity (Action!) coalition.

The report “Community Controlled Housing for Massachusetts” broadly calls for non-profit groups to purchase property, keep it permanently affordable and put residents in charge of managing it, especially in co-op models. The second report, “Building the Line to Equity,” calls for such housing to be a bigger focus of transit-oriented development (TOD).

JP has several such co-ops, and more on the way at such sites as the former Blessed Sacrament Church. And the forthcoming Jackson Square redevelopment is cited as a model of TOD.

But JP also has less certain sites where activists will try to employ the policies—especially the forthcoming redevelopment of MBTA parcels just south of the Forest Hills T Station, Brown said.

The reports offer a glimpse of the policies that affordable housing activists—also including JP’s City Life/Vida Urbana—will follow as they develop new initiatives and press current ones, such as the tenant collective bargaining proposal that was the subject of a Boston City Council hearing last week. [See related story.]

“I was really impressed by the succinctness of the reports, with good, thoughtful analysis and some clear policy prescriptions,” said Richard Thal, executive director of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), a non-profit community development corporation (CDC) that attempts to put such policies into real-world use. Thal read the reports after the Gazette informed him of their publication.

At the same time, he noted some challenges, especially in securing enough public funding to make housing truly and permanently affordable. Advocating for increased funds is a major point in the reports.

Action! formed about four years ago as activists began crossing paths at conferences of the national non-profit strategy group PolicyLink. The reports are available on the group’s web site at www.policylink.org/BostonAction/research.html.

Housing
The community controlled housing report lays out a case for Boston as possibly the country’s most expensive place to live. The report calculates that Boston’s average monthly housing cost exceeds that of New York City. San Francisco is more expensive, it says, but that city has lower taxes and child care costs.

In Boston in 2004, the report says, the median advertised rents cost the median family of renters 50 percent of their income. A maximum of 30 percent is the federal government’s recommendation for financial security.

On the ownership side, 92 percent of Massachusetts communities in 1998 had median single-family house prices affordable to someone making the community’s median income. In 2004, only 17 percent of Massachusetts communities could say that.

Rents and house prices outpaced income increases, the report says. And where affordable housing is provided, it’s often targeted at relatively high income brackets, around 80 percent of regional median income.

The report counts nearly 1,000 two- and four-family houses in Boston that were converted into condos between 1999 and 2004. Conversion into condos or high-end rental units is often cited as a major force in increased housing costs.

Action! activists say the recent declines in rent and house sale prices don’t change the report’s conclusions, because they have little positive effect for low- and middle-income residents.

“Even with the vaunted downturn in prices, there’s no way people in our [first-time homebuyer] classes can afford the prices,” said City Life’s Steve Meacham.

The report recommends that non-profits, such as CDCs, buy or develop properties and turn them into affordable rental or condo co-ops. In the case of ownership, that would be a so-called limited equity co-op model, meaning that developer/manager profit and unit sale prices would be permanently capped.

JP has several such co-ops, including the Forest Hills Co-Op and the Rockvale Circle development.

“We were among the first CDCs to do co-op [housing] in JP,” Thal noted. “It’s so much cheaper to preserve what you have,” than to develop new housing, he said.

A co-op element is included in the Blessed Sacrament project, which JPNDC is undertaking with the for-profit New Atlantic Development. Co-ops are also part of the Jackson Square plan, headed by JPNDC and the JP/Roxbury CDC Urban Edge under the name Jackson Square Partners.

JPNDC is even considering purchasing individual condo units as the market slumps to establish some affordable ownership opportunities, Thal said. “It is something that CDCs around the city are talking about…with the idea you would turn it around and sell it to first-time homebuyers,” he said.

Even the term “community controlled housing” has some JP roots dating to the real estate crash of the 1990s. Housing activists declared “Community Controlled Housing Zones”—including Hyde Square—to advocate for the acquisition of foreclosed investment properties.

But, the report acknowledges, community controlled housing isn’t always a simple and easy answer.

If a non-profit takes over a building, it may actually raise rents up to 30 percent of the median income and displace tenants who aren’t eligible for affordable housing. Such displacement recently happened at a JPNDC redevelopment at 266-268 Centre St., which City Life supported.

The housing may also be funded by “short-term tenancies,” the report says, including “students paying market rents that help support operating costs.” Students renters are often seen as lowering the quality of life and inflating housing costs, especially in the nearby Mission Hill neighborhood.

There’s also the issue of limited equity co-ops, which prevent developers from price-gouging, but also prevent owners from building as much equity as those with uncontrolled houses.

The report acknowledges that situation, but says it’s mostly a phantom problem based on the assumption that everyone eventually should “‘move up’ into market-rate housing.” Neighborhood stability and more overall low-income housing opportunities are a good trade-off, it says.

“There are so many trade-offs,” said Thal. “Those things are all very real. You always weigh them.”

The main challenge driving any real-world application of the report’s goals is money, he said—the high cost of purchasing existing property, and the public subsidies needed to build and maintain affordable housing.

The Jackson Square and Blessed Sacrament plans both now include less affordable housing than activists and the developers themselves originally wanted. But, Meacham said, they’re still impressive considering the funding realities.

Advocacy for increased funding, especially around major projects, is a key policy of the reports. So is increased tenant organizing, which can help in co-op creation.

TOD
TOD is a sort of specialized community controlled housing concern for Action! Part of Gov. Mitt Romney’s lauded “smart growth” proposals, TOD is the idea of basing new development around public transit stations, primarily to decrease car use.

Like virtually everybody else, Action! praises the TOD concept. The TOD report’s goals essentially involve improving TOD.

“How you do it is key,” Brown said. “Is it going to be TOD for very wealthy people?”

The report calls for at least 30 percent of any TOD housing to be affordable, and preferably community-controlled. Businesses and residents already in the area shouldn’t be displaced, either physically or by increased prices. It suggests a “community benefits agreement” with mitigation ideas, such as preferences for local businesses in the new project.

The report also emphasizes “local context” and long-range planning in TOD, rather than an isolated, stop-by-stop approach. Health and environmental justice benefits should be a focus, the report says.

Jackson Square is cited as a model of Action!’s TOD idea. Meacham noted that the community process on that development ended up mandating an affordability level—70 percent—based on the existing neighborhood, not just abstract principles.

“That was a revolutionary perspective,” he said.

Jackson Square Partners has been unable to meet that overall goal in the face of financial realities, which previously drew some prickly comments from City Life. But the project still includes a large amount of housing aimed at low-income residents.

“Jackson Square shows you can accomplish it,” Meacham said.

Thal noted that TOD has broad political support as a concept. But, he said, “More resources need to be put into this to make them real.”

The report has some specific policy ideas. It notes that the MBTA and the state both have TOD funding programs that include affordable housing components, but both are aimed at 80 percent of area median income. Targeting lower-income residents is important, the report says.

The report takes issue with the state Office for Commonwealth Development’s ranking system for which communities get TOD funding, saying rich suburbs tend to rank higher than transit-dependent urban areas like Roxbury and Somerville.

It also criticizes the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the regional organization that conducts federally funded transit planning. It says the MPO’s membership is 100 percent white, overrepresents the suburbs and is likely too small, compared to other MPOs nationwide.

The report offers some national models of TOD ideas, such as the 10-year property tax exemption on deeply affordable TOD offered by Portland, Ore.

JP future
JP is a model—even an inspiration—for many of the reports’ policies. “I think Jamaica Plain has certainly had strong political support for the models that we want,” Meacham said.

But it may also be a future battleground for them. CDC acquisition of properties—possibly including a wave of foreclosed condo units—could become a hot issue. And not everyone will agree with all of the reports’ policies. The limited-equity co-op and dense affordable housing proposed for Blessed Sacrament have received criticism from some residents.

Jackson Square may be a TOD model, but there’s a TOD question mark on the other end of the neighborhood. Thal noted the potential surrounding the Forest Hills MBTA parcel, as well as several acres of land offered for community development by the MBTA at the Arborway Yard bus facility.

“That’s probably the most critical piece of undeveloped land left in the neighborhood,” Thal said of the area. JPNDC has participated in preliminary meetings about the MBTA parcels, but Thal said it’s too early to say if they’ll put in a bid.

“I think in JP, these issues are alive and real,” Brown said.

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