JP Observer: Housing crises, homelessness, confronted firmly here

Residents of the prominent Forbes Building at 545 Centre Street voiced major worries at what was called an “Emergency Summit” on Zoom on Feb. 17. The dinner-time gathering was attended by more than 74 residents, neighbors, friends, officials and other supporters also fearful about the building’s immediate and long-term future.

       “Not knowing if we will have a roof over our heads,” one tenant said, “our smiles are gone.”

       The affordable housing contract with the building owner, Paul Clayton—set to expire on March 1—had still not been replaced by a new contract as of this writing. Tenants are unlikely to literally be put out on the street, because many officials and government agencies have their eyes on the problem. But tenants still didn’t know what would happen to them as of March 1 regarding their housing.

       “Sign the Contracts Now to Save Our Homes,” was the clear call of people in attendance.

       The state contracts would allow 76 existing subsidized tenants in jeopardy right now to stay and keep the building affordable in the future, said Michael Kane, executive director of Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants. MAHT, whose main office is in Jamaica Plain, has been working with the Forbes Building Tenants Association for quite a while. FBTA, MAHT and six local community organizations sponsored the summit.

       “This is a critical moment,” Kane said. He said the community needs to see Clayton’s stated commitment to affordable housing and not raising rents in writing. “Insecurity is cruel.”

       The Forbes Building crisis is one of several housing events that have grabbed our attention the past year. The threat and the existence of homelessness are constant, especially in Boston’s expensive housing market. 

       The visible encampment of hundreds of homeless people on the sidewalk at the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue (Mass and Cass) in the South End got neighbors’ and others’ attention for months.

       People who lived in makeshift tents there moved into various facilities with the help of the City of Boston with support from and in coordination with many homeless service providers, including the 53-year-old Boston nonprofit, Pine Street Inn (PSI).

       “Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration has put together a plan for everyone at Mass and Cass, and Pine Street supports that plan,” Barbara Trevisan, Vice President, Marketing and Communications for PSI, said in an email answer to a question from the Gazette.

       The state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services organized approximately 18 sleeping cabins with beds and space for storage on the Shattuck Campus in Franklin Park off Morton Street near Forest Hills. The residents of the temporary residences receive services from two agencies contracted by the state.

       Pine Street is also managing the separate, already existing, Shattuck Shelter and has turned it into a very low threshold shelter, where some people from Mass and Cass are staying, Trevisan said.

       The homeless crisis shows in ways that aren’t so visible as buildings and people sleeping on the street. Public and private agencies and individuals wrestle behind the scenes daily to address the two major, complicated components of housing the homeless: 1. securing affordable permanent housing and 2. providing homeless people with services that enable them to manage their lives so they succeed in getting and keeping a safe, secure place to live. Most of the second half of the work goes unseen by the public.

       Both goals are easy to state but complex and expensive to achieve. Once achieved, however, they really work for people and communities.

       Another building crisis, recently resolved, was caused by a surprise lawsuit filed in summer, 2020 to block popular, approved construction of what will be the largest supportive housing development in Boston at 3368 Washington St. near the intersection with Green Street in JP. The lawsuit was settled in May, 2021. Construction on the housing—whose proposal was first unveiled in March, 2019—has finally begun.

       “The new building is possible because Pine Street Inn (PSI) is allowing for the conversion of their former warehouse into a mixed-use development, and has created a partnership with The Community Builders (TCB) to share ownership,” according to a newsletter from the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH).

       Kerry O’Brien, Deputy Director of Press and Public Relations at MOH, pointed out in an interview mid-February that this and much of housing for formerly homeless is a result of many people “putting pieces of a puzzle” together. “You can’t get better partners” than Pine Street and other local agencies here, she added. The City boldly calls one division of MOH, “Ending Homelessness.”

       The Washington Street building will provide 140 apartments for people who are experiencing homelessness. Other income-restricted families will occupy 62 units. The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) is providing 156 Project-Based Vouchers to the development, including for all the units for individuals moving out of homelessness.

       TCB and PSI will make sure the residents get needed services. PSI itself will be an anchor tenant on the first floor. TCB is a national nonprofit housing developer and owner, based in Boston, that also “delivers resident services, to families, seniors and non-elderly disabled household who call a TCB community home, according to its website. JP resident Bart Mitchell is the president and CEO.

        “For over 50 years, Pine Street Inn has been a place of hope and transformation for men and women experiencing homelessness. Our role extends beyond shelter to make housing possible for everyone we serve,” its website says.

       The lawsuit by one building owner over parking delayed housing for hundreds of formerly homeless people, and during the months-long delay it caused, the cost of lumber skyrocketed due to supply chain issues. But the building is now due to be completed by the end of 2023.

       Throughout the community participation process and the delay, the JP community voiced strong support for the supportive housing.

       Fortunately, we as a community and a city have not become polarized around what can be a sensational topic. Some communities in the US, recently in the West and South, find themselves in pitched philosophical battles for the extremes. One side yells about keeping their property values and alleges homeless people cause crime in their neighborhoods, for example.

       Meanwhile, the other side demands that homeless people have some sort of “rights” to live in unsanitary, unsafe conditions on sidewalks, beaches, in public parks and in their cars. Mean-while, the numbers of homeless people multiplies each year.

       Housing at 25 Amory St. in Jackson Square for formerly homeless and low-income people has received its Certificate of Occupancy, MOH, one of many entities involved in its creation, also announced recently.

       The 44-unit rental building did not come out of any one crisis, but rather as part of the on-going Jackson Square Redevelopment Initiative (JSRI), a joint venture among The Community Builders (TCB), Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), Urban Edge, and the City of Boston with the goal of revitalizing 8 acres of vacant land and creating 300 units of much needed more income restricted housing.      “Five units are set aside for homeless families,” according to MOH.

       The 25 Amory development is on former state property left over from the land-taking that took place in the late 1970s for a proposed I-95 that was fought off by local communities, including JP.

       In addition to ordinary subsidized housing already in the neighborhood, there are more services and building units specifically for formerly homeless people.

       Pine Street, which works with homeless adults, currently has four residences in JP, housing 116 individuals. They are located on Creighton Street, Green Street, Locksley Street and Walnut Avenue.

       “People sign a lease and pay a third of whatever income they have and can stay as long as they like/need. Some stay for many years, others are able to move on to more independent housing. All of Pine Street’s housing offers support to help people reconnect with the community,” Trevisan said.

       Other agencies and housing units for formerly homeless are located here as well.

       The drama of visible homelessness and its causes looks bad for our neighborhood and our city. But the good news is, we have an incredible community that stands up and works hard to understand the complicated problem and support solving it in reasonable, practical ways.

       “We have been blown away by support from the JP community,” David Nollman, head of the FBTA, said at the summit. We’re seen a lot of commitment.” Residents in 110 units of the total 147 say they supporting keeping and retaining affordability, he said. Some units are now occupied by people paying market rate and some whose contract arrangement will be up later this year.

       Nollman also expressed gratitude to JP’s elected officials. “We’ve never seen so much support from legislators,” he added. City officials who spoke at the summit included Sheila Dillon, Chief of Housing for the City of Boston, and District 6 City Councilor Kendra Lara. State Rep. Nika Elugardo spoke, and Rep. Liz Mala and state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz have been closely involved. Mayor Michelle Wu sent a message of support to the summit.

       Boston’s sixth annual two-mile Winter Walk to raise funds and support for ending homelessness, a very visible event, attracted thousands to the Back Bay, including some homeless people, on a cold, snowy Feb. 13. Fifty businesses also sponsored the walk.

       As WHDH-TV news showed snow coming down around her, Mayor Wu said to the crowd, “This city is one that continually tries to close gaps and end homelessness. A lot of that work is invisible most of the year, and a lot of the residents and the members of our community who are living out on our streets also are invisible for so much of the year, so it’s important to all come together and elevate these issues.”

            Next month: Helping homeless people go on to thrive.

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