Affordable housing, food justice discussed during State of Our Neighborhood

By Josie Grove

Special to the Gazette

About 150 people attended on April 7 the sixth annual State of Our Neighborhood (SOON) event at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School, where topics discussed ranged from arts to affordable housing to food justice.

City and state elected officials listened to concerns and answered questions that had been collected from three “pre-meetings” to the SOON event. Some of the elected officials included City Councilors Michelle Wu, Ayanna Pressley, Annissa Essaibi-George, Matt O’Malley, and Tito Jackson, as well as local state Reps. Jeffrey Sanchez and Liz Malia. Sheila Dillon, director of the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development, was also present.

The meeting began with questions about the arts. O’Malley wants to make sure that large arts nonprofits are giving back to the city with public programs. He cited the Boston Ballet’s work in public schools as a strong example.

Bringing more art events into the community is a goal for Jackson. “We should have essentially a concierge service to be able to walk people through the sometimes complicated process of permitting. I believe you should be able to have a block party on any street,” he said.

Jackson also spoke about the problems of working artists in Jamaica Plain.

“We want to make sure artists have a place to live,” he said. “We need to push for more affordable housing.”

Artists are not the only people struggling to find housing in Jamaica Plain.

“There is a housing crisis in JP-Roxbury,” said Giovanny Valencia Corredor of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation.   The city councilors agreed. O’Malley and Jackson both support raising state income taxes for people making over $1 million to help fund affordable housing. Jackson also supports more City-funded housing vouchers.

Another housing proposal discussed was the Community Preservation Act (CPA), which is a law that would allow Boston to raise funds for housing, parks and open space, and historical preservation through a surcharge tax. Ten percent of the funds would be donated to each of those causes. A commission of eight or nine board members appointed by the mayor would decide what portion of the remaining 70 percent of funds to disburse among those three causes.

The tax could raise $13 million annually, in addition to funding that Boston would receive through a state match. Low- and moderate-income seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income residents would be exempt from the tax. The tax would be calculated through a complex formula: It is a 1 percent tax on the cost of a property bill after $100,000 of value has been subtracted and the residential exemption applied, if applicable. That means an owner who has a property assessed at $400,000 would see an increase in the property bill of about $13. It is not a 1 percent increase in the property tax. Boston voters rejected the measure in 2001, but the City Council is weighing it again this year.

“For the average family, it’s $23.09, about 44 cents per week,” said Jackson. “But what we would get back is a huge multiplier.”

Sanchez was skeptical because cities can choose to spend the funds on only parks and historic preservation, without building any affordable housing. The City Council will vote on it this spring, before possibly going to voters in November.

The elected officials also discussed the proposed “Just Cause Eviction” ordinance, which would require landlords to provide a compelling reason to evict tenants, among other tenant protections.

“It is abhorrent to think that our brother and sister Bostonians can be forced out of their homes for no reason,” said O’Malley. “I support JCE, I have, and I will continue to advocate for it.”

Dillon reminded the audience of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Stability, which provides legal representation for tenants facing eviction, and collects data on evictions. Dillon said the Walsh administration supports some aspects of the JCE ordinance, but is “testing the mood at the State House” before committing to a position.

Food justice was the third issue addressed at the meeting. Much of Jamaica Plain is considered a food desert, with people being more than a half-mile walk from a grocery store.

“We’re all committed and in different ways contributing to [food justice],” said Pressley. “Everyone’s got to eat.”

The elected officials expressed support for nonprofit groups, such as Fair Foods, and for creative solutions, like urban farms, but there was little discussion of how to bring a low-cost grocery store to the neighborhood.

Attendees at the meeting were pleased with what their elected officials had to say, but some said they wished they had been able to address them directly.

“The forum was so closed,” said Curtis Jones, who wanted the officials to address globalization.

Benji Mauer said the meeting “felt like a bunch of talking heads.”

Phoebe Sinclair has attended the State Of Our Neighborhood meetings for several years.

“Some things are a little depressing, because they bring them up every time, and it doesn’t change,” she said.

But she is happy to see local officials are listening at SOON.

“This is unique,” said Sinclair. “I don’t ever see anything like this anywhere else.”

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