Senator: No Whole Foods without housing fund

May 13, 2011
By

John Ruch

HYDE SQ.—Whole Foods Market must create an affordable housing preservation fund or halt its planned move into Jamaica Plain, local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz demands in her first statement about the controversial grocer.

“If making commitments of this size is beyond Whole Foods’ reach, the simplest way to protect the neighborhood would be for Whole Foods to break their lease on the Hyde Square space, or sublet it to another grocer specializing in Latino foods,” Chang-Díaz said in an April 28 letter to the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s ad hoc committee reviewing the Whole Foods move.

Whole Foods Market did not respond to a request for comment. The supermarket chain is moving into the former Latino-centric Hi-Lo Foods at 415 Centre St.

Rapid gentrification of housing around Whole Foods stores nationwide is “the inherent problem” and a threat to working-class JP, wrote Chang-Díaz, who is a JP resident.

Chang-Díaz’s letter set off a flurry of commentary when the Gazette website first published it on April 30. In a Gazette interview, Chang-Díaz told the Gazette that the letter is “an expression of opinion based on all that I have heard.”

“But it’s important to note I have no special ownership here on the whole issue of whether Whole Foods should come to the neighborhood,” she added, saying that is the community’s role.

Chang-Díaz told the Gazette that time has come for the community to figure out what it wants from Whole Foods. The intent of her letter, she said, was “to come to the table with something constructive to move the discussion forward. I want to be at least the catalyst.”

While praising Whole Foods for economic opportunity and quality food, Chang-Díaz wrote in the letter that the “disadvantages outweigh the advantages” of the chain’s move into JP.

Whole Foods’ normal corporate donations are not enough, Chang-Díaz wrote. The chain must “set up and endow a community preservation fund” that would buy residential properties to keep them affordable, she said, without suggesting a dollar amount.

“Endowing a fund that could buy available property in the Hyde/Jackson area with a commitment to keeping it affordable will require a serious financial commitment—no doubt,” Chang-Díaz wrote. “But Whole Foods’ detrimental impact on the neighborhood in the absence of such an investment would be of a far greater magnitude.”

Chang-Díaz also called on Whole Foods to hire local residents for a “specific percentage” of the new store’s jobs, though she did not suggest a percentage.

Asked by the Gazette how much money the affordable housing fund should have and how it would operate, Chang-Díaz said, “I honestly don’t know,” adding that it is too early to say. But she pointed to resident-run community trust funds in Roxbury and Chinatown as possible models. She is an ex-officio member of those trusts’ boards.

The previously reported possibility of a new Latino grocer coming to Hyde Square near Whole Foods is interesting and also requires careful examination, Chang-Díaz told the Gazette.

“It cures part of the sadness of the loss of Hi-Lo, but it doesn’t cure the issue of the increasing pace of gentrification,” she said.

The following is the full text of Chang-Díaz’s letter:

Dear Chair Steve Laferriere and Members of the JPNC Whole Foods Ad-Hoc Committee:

Thank you for your service to the Jamaica Plain community by taking on this new role within the JP Neighborhood Council. I write today to outline what I hope will serve as constructive suggestions for addressing the controversies that have divided our neighborhood since the release of the news that Whole Foods intended to move into the space of the former Hi-Lo market.

The planned expansion of a Whole Foods Market into the Hyde Square section of Jamaica Plain has generated heated debate among my constituents. Since I first learned of Hi-Lo Foods’ closing, my office has done its best to understand from all sides the different perspectives on this highly divisive issue. I’ve met with representatives from Whole Foods, spoken with former employees of Hi-Lo, heard from members of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, and spoken with staff at the JPNDC and local Main Streets organizations. My staff members and I attended community meetings at the Blessed Sacrament development, the Kennedy Elementary, and the First Baptist Church, where we listened to the concerns of community activists both for and against the expansion, and in the middle. Most important, we read hundreds of e-mails and letters from ordinary residents throughout Jamaica Plain detailing how the opening of a Whole Foods in Hyde Square would affect their lives—for better and for worse.

As many residents expressed, there are several positives to bringing a retailer such as Whole Foods to JP. We stand to gain potentially dozens of new jobs in the neighborhood, at rates of pay and with benefits that will likely exceed those paid by Hi-Lo. This is no small thing for the workers and families who will be touched by employment, especially at a time of still-fragile recovery for our economy. Whole Foods could also increase access to healthy food to the Hyde/Jackson area, especially for those without cars, at a time when many other low-income neighborhoods suffer dire health impacts because of the lack of such access. I believe firmly that all people deserve to have realistic healthful food options, no matter what ZIP code or socio-economic bracket they live in.

Unfortunately, there are also serious negative impacts that Whole Foods’ entry into the neighborhood is likely to bring. I believe, with a heavy heart, that these disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

Looking at data from other instances where Whole Foods has located in low- and middle-income neighborhoods, it’s clear that the presence of Whole Foods rapidly and substantially raises property values in its surrounding areas. This is the inherent problem. Even if Whole Foods behaves as the best corporate citizen, the best neighbor possible by all of our usual standards, its presence will still light a fire under the gentrification process that will displace low- and moderate- income residents from JP.

Increasing property values in our community is not always bad. Indeed, this is something every homeowner in JP—low- or high-income, white, brown, or black—probably hopes for. But pace matters. A lot. There are families who have spent generations building JP into the incredible neighborhood it is today. We stand to lose many of these families, and their friends and neighbors, if property taxes and rents balloon so fast that their incomes can’t keep up. In order to preserve the character of JP that we all love and believe in so deeply, development has to happen at a pace our neighbors can benefit from, not be displaced by.

Whole Foods has said many times that they aspire to be a positive neighbor and a responsible corporate citizen in the JP community. I believe this is true and therefore ask Whole Foods to recognize that their typical strategy for integrating into new neighborhoods is not designed to protect economically and socially diverse communities. In action, this requires Whole Foods to take some specific steps to help mitigate the impacts described above.

1. Whole Foods has stated that they expect to hire about 100 workers at their planned JP location. In order for local residents to actually benefit from this job creation, and for Whole Foods’ presence to contribute to local wealth creation, Whole Foods needs to commit to hiring locally for a specific percentage of these jobs.

2. Whole Foods should also work with credible community groups in the Hyde/Jackson area to set up and endow a community preservation fund for the purpose of keeping Hyde/Jackson area properties affordable for current residents. This will mean front-loading Whole Foods’ typical neighborhood philanthropy, replacing its current strategy of rolling “5% days” and small donations to a variety of groups. The trouble with that existing strategy is that, not too long from now, Whole Foods’ corporate giving in JP will be benefiting the future neighborhood that its presence will create—not the current neighbors who’ve worked so hard to make JP what it is today and who stand to be displaced. Endowing a fund that could buy available property in the Hyde/Jackson area with a commitment to keeping it affordable will require a serious financial commitment—no doubt. But Whole Foods’ detrimental impact on the neighborhood in the absence of such an investment would be of a far greater magnitude.

If making commitments of this size is beyond Whole Foods’ reach, the simplest way to protect the neighborhood would be for Whole Foods to break their lease on the Hyde Square space, or sublet it to another grocer specializing in Latino foods.

I make these proposals as an elected official who represents all of the JP community, and who is committed to stewarding its long-term interests. But I also make them as a JP resident who deeply loves this community—with all its blemishes, all its character, and all its complexities. I know you, as JPNC members, share this passion for our community. I thank you again for your service in tackling these difficult issues and look forward to working with you to find solutions that reflect the pride, creativity, and mutual respect that are the fundamental values of our neighborhood.

Saludos,

Sonia Chang-Díaz
?State Senator?
Second Suffolk District