Housing issue absorbs council

April 27, 2007
By

LOU MANCINELLI

Members of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) who endorsed a petition calling for 50 percent of housing developed as part of the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII) to be affordable, explained how they made their decision at the council’s monthly meeting Tuesday evening at Curtis Hall.

Other members of the council talked about its decision-making process and the purpose of the council. Confusion about what affordable housing actually means, but agreement that the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) has not served its outreach responsibilities, dominated discussion. There were fewer than 15 audience members present.

The council’s endorsement of the petition has ignited controversy and started a dialogue about affordable housing in Forest Hills.

Members of the JPNC Housing and Development Committee said they were approached first by Forest Hills residents responsible for starting the petition. The council’s endorsement was a non-binding decision, as well as a way for neighbors who could not attend community or working group meetings to ensure their voices are part of the larger discussion.

“I don’t think anyone here thought that would be the council’s final word,” said committee chair Francesca Fordiani. “We did that to support the neighbors.”

“I apologize for not making sure the community was invited,” said JPNC Chair Nelson Arroyo.

The petition endorsed by the JPNC at its March meeting, will be discussed at the next Housing and Development Committee meeting May 8 at 7 p.m. at Curtis Hall. Comments from that meeting will be presented at the council’s regular meeting May 22, also at 7 p.m. at Curtis Hall, when the issue will be reopened for discussion.

The FHII is a process run by the BRA to catalogue community interests for what type of development may happen on the three parcels owned by the MBTA near the Forest Hills T Station and three other parking lots and parts of the Arborway Yard now for sale.

Thus far, the BRA has hosted three of six community meetings and a number of working group meetings—all open to anyone. It has said more will be held if necessary. The last community meeting was March 30. There was no public advertisement of the meeting in local press until the day before the meeting.

At the start of that meeting, JPNC member Red Burrows introduced the petition, which ignited controversy between those who felt the JPNC had not engaged the community in its decision, among other issues. Tuesday night, council members addressed the controversy.

“I want to start the meeting by saying I will not tolerate anyone who speaks offensively in any way about affordable housing,” said Arroyo.

Fordiani said she was approached by neighbors in Forest Hills who wanted to start a petition. She said part of the decision to endorse the petition was based on the fact the JPNC endorsed Transit oriented development (TOD) guidelines a few months ago. TOD has strong anti-gentrification unit and strong community benefit aspects to its guidelines, according to Fordiani. She also emphasized the difference between making suggestions for development guidelines—like the petition—and actual development.

“One reason we got together with neighbors to write the petition was because we felt our voice wasn’t being heard,” said Walk Hill Street resident Nora Bloch, one of the neighbors who helped write the petition. “It seemed like at the larger community meeting, there were a group of people who were in charge, and then, there was everyone else.”

Sally Swenson, another Forest Hills neighbor, said she could not attend the meetings, but was excited when a petition was generated to express the affordable housing desire.

“When the mayor calls for 15 percent of development to include affordable housing, the JPNC’s call for 50 percent puts an unfair hardship on the community,” said Woodbourne neighbor Scott Hoffert. Hoffert said BRA outreach has been insufficient. He also said there was no outreach from the JPNC when it endorsed the affordable housing petition.

A majority of people present at the meeting agreed this miscommunication should and could be remedied.

The JPNC is a not a city body but a council composed of volunteers elected by their neighbors to serve as a community advocating entity. Affordable housing has been a strong component of the group’s platform since it was appointed in the fall of 1985 by Mayor Raymond Flynn. It has no legal authority but carries a significant amount of clout regarding local zoning decisions and community issues in general. The council is, in essence, designed to be a medium of representation between city officials and the JP community.

Arroyo said he should not have seconded the motion at the previous meeting without more of a community process. “I based my decision on a quick glance of the minutes,” he said. “There are different ideas about what affordable housing is and who lives in affordable housing.”

According to Fordiani, affordable housing is housing that costs 30 percent or less of the owner/renter’s income.

According to the City of Boston, affordable housing is priced for people who make below 110 percent of the area median income (AMI). But according to local non-profit the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Develop Corporation (JPNDC), it is housing priced for people who make below 80 percent of AMI. The city says the AMI for a family of four in Boston is $50,000.

“Those of us who own homes take better care of the community—I challenge that,” said Arroyo. “When I purchased my home 15 years ago, the neighborhood was very different than it is today. The fabric of the neighborhood has changed very much. But there is still a fabric.”

“I don’t regret my decision. I don’t regret that I signed the petition,” said JPNC member Felix Arroyo Jr. (no relation to Nelson Arroyo). Arroyo Jr. said he is a Forest Hills neighbor, and if the purpose of the BRA process is to catalogue community voices, he does not see a problem with neighbors organizing to circulate a non-binding petition. Arroyo Jr. also said it was difficult to attend all the meetings, and the petition was a way to account for this reality. “Sometimes you have to pick and choose what meetings you go to,” he said. “I have felt personally hurt by people who talk against affordable housing.”

“I can understand the community reaction to the issue of negative stereotypes,” said JP resident Christine Pulta.

Pulta said she is not opposed to affordable housing in principle, but based on past history. Affordable housing has a history of demonstrating low quality, a lack of maintenance and a poor selection of residents, she said.

“You [affordable housing property managers] start selecting residents with drug and violent criminal history,” said Pulta. She said if neighbors were presented with detailed information about who would live in the housing and how it would be managed, more people would announce their support for the idea.

“It’s unfortunate these stereotypes still exist,” said Arroyo. “I wonder if they still exist because of the color of our skin, or where you come from, or what kind of car you drive. It strikes a vein.”

“I wanted to reiterate the importance of seizing opportunities for affordable housing on public land,” said Housing and Development committee member Bill Reyelt. “There are so few tools to create affordable housing. It’s really an endangered species.”

“Members of the housing and development committee have been part of the Forest Hills process since the start,” said Fordiani. “If folks weren’t clear the council was represented at the meetings it was our mistake.”

JPNC member Peter Bowne said when the petition was brought forward at last month’s meeting he felt a bit misled, and was curious about who the
neighbors were and why none had come to the actual council meeting to present the petition on their own. Bowne said he voted yes because he thought it was to support a group of neighbors. However, he said, he has still not seen those neighbors. Bowne suggested the council rescind its endorsement of the proposal.

Burrows said he did not want to put blame on any person, but the BRA had not done its job of advertising the meetings in a timely fashion. He said 48 hours was not enough time to respond to a Saturday morning meeting.

“I think someone at the BRA has a time agenda,” he said. “There are a lot of abutters who don’t know what’s going on. I think that’s a liability to anyone who has worked on this. I’m sorry if what I said offended anyone. That’s not what I want to do.”

“I support what I signed,” said JPNC member Alexandra Oliver-Dávila. “I think it was appropriate.” Oliver-Dávila acknowledged Nelson Arroyo’s apology to the community but felt it was unwarranted.

JP resident Carol Pryor said she has been to all the working group meetings, and she felt there were parts of the neighborhood that were not being brought into the process. “There are a lot of opinions in the community, not just one,” she said.

“At this point I don’t care about the process [of the JPNC’s endorsement of the proposal],” said Pryor. “What the petition had the of effect of doing was raising the issue in a way it wasn’t raised before, which is good.

“We all have different ideas about what affordable housing means,” she said. “Some people think of ‘the projects, some think Bromley-Heath, some think rental. I think we need a real discussion in the neighborhood about what affordable housing means.”

“I think we should push for affordable housing, but there needs to be a better definition of affordable housing,” said JP resident Brian Potter. Potter referred to answers on surveys recently handed out in Forest Hills, in which some residents said they want market-rate housing priced for people whose income is $19,000.

“Everyone has their own perspective. Everyone is passionate about the neighborhood,” said Bowne. “We need to find a better way to have this conversation.”

Other business
The JPNC unanimously voted to support the Blessed Sacrament plans for development at Creighton and Centre streets, with the proviso that some modifications, such as adding something like chess tables, be made to the 1 acre of green space in the middle of the property.

A vote to take a position against the Boston Police Department’s plan to use helicopter patrols was also supported by the council.

“Helicopter patrols seem like a terrible idea,” said JP resident Bill Mitchell. “So I assume it’s inevitable. It is the very opposite of community policing.” He said instead of getting out of their cars officers can now hover over the community. “It is anti-community policing,” said Mitchell.

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