JPNC weighs joining an advocacy coalition

August 14, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) Housing and Development Committee proposed at the council’s July 29 meeting that the JPNC join a formal coalition to advocate for affordable housing in Forest Hills.

There was very little discussion of the proposal, which would see the council formally allied with a number of nonprofits with missions that include promoting affordable housing. JPNC chair Jesus Gerena tabled it immediately after asking that a written proposal be presented at the September JPNC meeting. The full council will not meet in August.

Francesca Fordiani, chair of the council Housing and Development Committee, put forward the proposal. A group of community organizations has already been working together informally to raise awareness about the FHII, Fordiani said. That group includes the Boston Tenants Coalition (BTC), the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), City Life/Vida Urbana and the Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF).

Juan Gonzalez, director of community organizing at the JPNDC, told the Gazette the formal coalition is calling itself the Forest Hills Task Force.

HSTF, where Gerena is on staff, decided not to join the formal coalition. Gerena said that is because HSTF does not have time to participate. “For City Life and the JPNDC [affordable housing advocacy] is the core of their work. We are partners on current and past projects and we will continue to actively support affordable housing,” he said.

In a Gazette interview, Gerena said the council will have to consider whether the council would be compromising itself by joining an advocacy coalition.

“I think that it would be dangerous for us to join an advocacy group. It could jeopardize our role in zoning and design review,” Gerena said.

The council is an elected body, and, on behalf of the community, it issues recommendations to the city on development issues—including variances sought by individual property owners; Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)-required design reviews for certain development projects; and large-scale zoning map changes.

Those issues are heard and voted on by the council’s Zoning Committee. The full council then votes on the Zoning Committee’s recommendations.

At the heart of the current issue is the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII)—a broad, BRA-led effort to develop Use and Design Guidelines for the redevelopment of six parcels around the Forest Hills T station. The JPNC’s Housing and Development Committee, with the council’s blessing, has long advocated for a strong affordable housing component in those proposed development guidelines.

Fordiani told the Gazette she does not see affordable housing advocacy, or joining a coalition, as a conflict for the council. The coalition, she said at the meeting, would be advocating for affordability guidelines the council has already adopted.

Those guidelines, which cover developments with 10 or more residential units, call for at least 50 percent of new units on public land to be made affordable to people earning 80 percent of the area median income. The guidelines say that if more than half of JP residents earn less than 80 percent AMI, that percentage should be used to determine the number of units that should be affordable.

According to the BRA, about half of the households in Forest Hills would be eligible for some form of affordable housing.

Fordiani said she sees the coalition as “other folks helping us promote the position of the JPNC.”

Gonzales of the JPNDC described the coalition effort as focused mostly on outreach and information-sharing. “The main goal is for any proposal is to be based on what the community wants,” he said.

Prior to organizing as a coalition, the informal group has been involved in petition and letter-writing campaigns to advocate for affordable housing during the BRA’s public comment period on the last version of the guidelines this spring, Gonzales said.

That advocacy is based on statistics showing that 50 percent of the current residents in the Forest Hills area would be eligible for the affordable housing being recommended, he said.

John Dalzell, a BRA senior architect who is leading the process, has cited the same numbers at meetings to explain how the BRA established the 50 percent affordable housing goal in the first place.

“We want development to enhance the community, not create an exclusive part of the neighborhood with benefits just for a few,” Gonzales said.

In their public comments this spring, Bernie Doherty and David Hannon of the Asticou-Martinwood Neighborhood Association accused “special interests” of attempting to hijack the process. At that time said some community members “feel like [the affordable housing advocacy] is as much about business as it is about housing.”

Specifically, those concerns had arisen about “people who are board members of community development corporations who also live in the community,” Dalzell said at the time.

Dalzell did not consider those concerns significant, saying he thought it was “not a big deal, no one should be out of the room.”

The JPNDC is a community development corporation and also does community organizing. Speaking to the Gazette, both Gonzales and JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal described those roles as separate and distinct.

The JPNDC does not currently have plans to bid on any of the Forest Hills parcels, Thal told the Gazette. “Once we are involved in applying for something, we would not be involved” in any community process having to do with the development, he said.

In the meantime, he said, “Our role, and this is something we have been doing for 30 years, is to get as many people as possible involved in the conversation. It is an emphasis of ours to attract people who tend to be less active and involved.”

While Gerena said he has reservations about the JPNC joining a coalition, he said the Housing and Development Committee should pursue those goals.

“I think that the role [of the Housing and Development Committee] has been very strong in the whole process. It has been strong in insuring community participation and promoting the [JPNC affordable housing] guidelines.”

Doherty, a former member of the JPNC, said he does not think the council should be involved in advocacy. Generally the council should “solicit opinions from the community, not form policy,” Doherty said. And, he said, he thinks it is “crossing the line to advocate with another group.”

Despite his previous comments about the FHII being “hijacked,” Doherty said he is not opposed to the other organizations doing advocacy work, but said he hopes the coalition will not be a divisive force.

As to whether it is appropriate for the JPNC to join a coalition, Fordiani’s final words were in deference to the council’s forthcoming deliberations. “Whether it’s appropriate or inappropriate is for the council to decide. I trust my colleagues to hash it out,” she said.

Other business

At the meeting, Fordiani said the Housing and Development Committee invited state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson to attend its next meeting [See JP Agenda.] to discuss affordable housing in Forest Hills. The senator issued a letter, handed out at June FHII meeting, opposing 50 percent affordability in Forest Hills.

Peter Sermabeikian of Pond Street was appointed by the council to replace Kalila Barnett, representing Area C (Pondside/Jamaica Hills/Forest Hills). Barnett resigned from the council when she moved out of JP.