Sumner Hill House has long been one of Jamaica Plain’s affordable-housing success stories. The former Jamaica Plain High School at 76 Elm St. was renovated into a handsome, historic housing complex in 1986. It may look like the expensive Victorian mansions and condos around it, but two-thirds of the 75 rental units inside were priced for low- and moderate-income tenants.
But subsidies that allowed for that affordability are expiring. Now the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), which is a partner in the neighborhood trust that owns the building, is seeking a new path to success by converting 30 units into condos selling at below-market prices—largely to current tenants.
JPNDC purchased another 20 units to preserve as low-income rental housing. The remaining units will become “market-rate” condos—though the average selling price of $250,000 is still well below the neighborhood’s luxury-level prices.
“The Sumner Hill House is an example of what can happen when the community works together to create housing that is affordable to people at different income levels,” said JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal in a press statement.
“I appreciate the diversity of the building and that people come from all different kinds of places,” said Susana Devoe, a longtime tenant who has now purchased her unit, in a press statement. “It’s not all young professionals. As neighborhoods change, that diversity can be hard to maintain.”
Sumner Hill House was an early example of “adaptative reuse” of a historic building, and maintaining its affordability thanks to the oversight of a community trust. That has become a model on the JPNDC’s ongoing Blessed Sacrament Church redevelopment.
“This was one of the first [affordable] projects that was done this way,” Thal said in a Gazette interview. “This was definitely an experiment.”
The complex condo conversion—a financially feasible way of retaining affordable housing there—has been worked out by the trust over at least two years.
“It’s an ongoing process,” said Carlos Icaza, a JPNDC board member who sits on the trust as a Sumner Hill resident. “It’s not one of those trusts that meets and has cocktails.”
“Sumner Hill is a fabulous neighborhood because we have not instituted any NIMBY-ism,” Icaza said, referring to “not in my back yard” protests. Keeping financial diversity “makes Sumner Hill a very special area,” he said.
The high school opened in 1903 and closed in the 1970s. As a massive, attractive building in an expensive area, it was an unlikely site for affordable housing. JPNDC teamed with for-profit developer Robert Kuehn of HallKeen Development to beat the odds.
Kuehn was an early proponent of adaptive reuse and a supporter of affordable housing. He died in 2006 while the condo-conversion negotiations were in development. His estate continued to support the attempt to retain affordable housing there, Thal said.
JPNDC and HallKeen renovated the building and established the trust to ensure long-term affordability. The trust includes residents, JPNDC members and professional consultants. Among the goals it sought to enforce was keeping at least 25 percent of the units affordable.
As the original rental subsidies began to expire, JPNDC and the trust tried to figure out how to maintain affordability well above that 25 percent goal. Partial condo conversion was the answer. JPNDC has worked directly with tenants, turning many of them into unit owners rather than renters.
The moderate-income condos are selling for an average price of $185,000. The low-income rental units are now in long-term JPNDC ownership.
JPNDC is a nonprofit community development corporation whose mission includes community organizing and creating affordable housing and jobs.
Clarification: The print version of this article described the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) as the “property owner” of Sumner Hill House. JPNDC is a partner with the Sumner Hill Association and residents in the trust that owns the property, as reported in the article. JPNDC also purchased 20 rental units in the building, as reported in the article.