JP housing may get state funding boost

March 21, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

Jackson Square and other major Jamaica Plain development projects could get a shot in the arm from a $1.25 billion housing bond bill passed by the state House of Representatives this month. The funding is also aimed at repairing the state’s decaying public housing stock.

“Projects such as Blessed Sacrament and the future developments of Parcel 25 in Mission Hill and Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain have and will create a wealth of affordable housing opportunities for individuals and families in my district,” state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez told his fellow legislators, according to a press statement, referring to projects that could benefit from the funding.

It is the “largest housing bond bill ever passed,” according to Richard Thal, executive director of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC). A nonprofit developer of largely affordable housing, JPNDC is a major member of the teams redeveloping Jackson Square and Hyde Square’s Blessed Sacrament Church complex.

The bond bill still needs approval from the state Senate and Gov. Deval Patrick, but is expected to pass largely unchanged. It was drafted by a joint House-Senate committee.

Thal is also chair of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, which will hold its annual “lobby day” at the State House on March 27 to push for affordable housing funds.

Sánchez, a prime mover behind the funding bill, told the Gazette it could help create 600 to 700 units of subsidy-dependent housing in his district.

“It’s huge, because those pots need filling,” he said of the $1.25 billion.

Blessed Sacrament and Jackson Square have been quietly starved for the subsidies their developers’ plans rely on in recent years, sources have told the Gazette. Jackson Square has been passed over in the last two rounds of state funding programs with relatively tight budgets. And the housing market crisis has impacted the tax-credit financing both projects counted on.

The housing bond bill would boost the state programs. It wouldn’t directly address the tax-credit financing slump, but would help “fill the gaps,” Thal said.

“It certainly helps in that it shows the state is more committed than ever to making these kinds of projects happen,” he said.

The housing bond bill would put $245 million into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a flexible state program that JPNDC and fellow local community development corporation (CDC) Urban Edge regularly rely on.

A half-billion dollars would go to modernizing state-assisted public housing, which notoriously suffers from poor maintenance.

Thal pointed to some smaller funds that especially could help JP projects.

The bill commits $50 million to Community Development Action Grants, which fund unglamorous infrastructure improvements on land that is getting redeveloped. That is a big—and expensive—issue in Jackson Square.

“In JP and Roxbury, there’s a very specific interest in having [that program] funded,” Thal said.

He also pointed to $30 million aimed at transit-oriented development—projects around public transit hubs. Jackson Square and the forthcoming Forest Hills T Station-area redevelopment could benefit from that.

“I think across the country, people are understanding there’s got to be a connection between [public] transportation and housing,” Thal said.

Thal praised Sánchez’s activism on housing funds. “He’s been helping lead the charge on this, which is great,” he said.

At the same time, Thal noted, getting the funding is just the first part of the challenge. On the back end is the question of how it gets spent. Each program area typically has a bond issuance cap placed on it. Basically, that means there is an annual limit on how much funding is available.

For example, if the entire $1.25 billion was capped at five years, it would amount to $250 million a year. For comparison, Thal said, the main state housing programs amounted to about $170 million last year.

“If the potential is going to be met, they’re going to have to revisit that bond cap,” Thal said. Raising the cap is one of the things CDCs will lobby the state about.

CDCs usually specialize in affordable housing, so they’re especially interested in housing subsidies. But most of the programs will also be available to for-profit developments.

A bond bill works by selling state bonds to investors and using the cash to fund programs. The state eventually has to find a way to pay back those investors with interest.

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