Forbes Building’s future sparks concern at JPNC

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) held its regular monthly meeting this past Tuesday.

     Chairman Will Cohen and members Dave Baron, Michael Reiskind, vice-chair Bernie Doherty, Nick Chaves, Gert Thorn, Peg Preble, Omer Hecht, Paige Sparks, Rene Welch, and Sarah Freeman were in attendance.

     The principal source of discussion among the members focused on the future of the Forbes Building at 545 Centre St., which has provided apartments primarily for low-income tenants for four decades.

     The Forbes was constructed more than 40 years ago pursuant to a state program that provided state-backed, low-interest construction loans to developers with the requirement that 75 percent of the units be rented at below-market rates for low-income residents for a period of 40 years.

     The property, which is owned by the Jamaica Plain Company, is the last of these properties in the city whose low-income rental agreement has expired, essentially freeing the owner of the property to charge market-rate rents for all tenants.

     State and city officials have been in negotiations with the Jamaica Plain Co. for more than a year in order to find a pathway to maintain the Forbes as a low-income rental housing complex.

     However, the delay in reaching an agreement — which reportedly hinges on the amount of money being sought by the owner vs. what the city and state have been willing to offer — has proven vexing for the tenants, almost all of whom are senior citizens and/or disabled persons, who have been left in a state of limbo with no written guarantee as to their future.

     On hand for the meeting were two representatives from the Jamaica Plain Co., attorney Jeff Sacks, a community development attorney with the law firm Nixon Peabody, and Dot Joyce, a former press secretary for Mayor Tom Menino who is a consultant employed by the Jamaica Plain Co.

     Joyce told the members that there is no plan to increase the low-income tenants’ rents in the immediate future and that the “full preservation of the Forbes” as a building for low-income tenants “is the ultimate goal.”

     She added that the owner wants to make the building 100 percent affordable housing.

     “This is the last-expiring use in the city from 40 years ago,” said Sacks. “The people who have invested in the building have done their time and the limited partnership wants to move on. They’re not looking to take it to market or sell this building. They want it to go forward for another 40 years.”

     Despite these seeming reassurances from Joyce and Sacks, the discussion, which also was attended by tenants of the Forbes Building, often turned heated.

     JPNC vice-chair Bernie Doherty, who has been a passionate advocate for the tenants, emphasized that the current residents are primarily senior citizens and “are deserving of respect. We talk and talk and talk, but see little or no action,” said Doherty. “This is a money pool, but let’s talk about the humanity that’s involved here. There is no reason that these residents should live in fear.”

     The residents of the Forbes, most of whom have called the complex their home for many years, spoke of the stressful situation that the impasse has created.

     “There was a promise for an affordability plan back in May, but here we are in December without a plan,” said one resident.

     Another resident added, “What baffles me, and what we have been disturbed about, is that it never has been put in writing that the building will remain affordable. Everybody is under stress and it is affecting their health. We are concerned about our long-term future.”

     Said another resident, “There are residents whose leases expire at the end of December, less than two weeks, and they are under a tremendous amount of stress with no guarantee that their rents will not go up.”

     Council member Gert Thorn said the owner, the city, and the state must get together and talk to each other.

     “We should be rallying the people on the side of the tenants and get all of the players together. Nothing is happening and I can see us being back in this same situation a year from now,” Thorn said.

     He suggested that the JPNC take the initiative to bring city, state, and company officials together to work out a plan for the Forbes Building’s future.

     Joyce reminded the council members that the owner “has no obligation to maintain the Forbes as an affordable apartment building.”

     That comment drew a rebuke from those in attendance, who suggested that it was in the nature of a threat.

     “The ownership is negotiating with the state and city in good faith about the terms of the future status of the building,” replied Joyce.

     Sacks noted that “these sorts of negotiations are not subject to being conducted in public” and reminded all in attendance that rents were frozen for the low-income tenants for 2022 into 2023.

     The council ultimately voted to have Doherty and Thorn draft a letter that will be sent to the mayor, the state, and the owner of the building asking that they come together at a future JPNC meeting in order to work toward a resolution of the problem. The full council will vote on the exact wording of the letter at its next meeting.

     Omer Hecht reported on the meeting for the DCR’s Arborway reconstruction project that was held last week and told the members that another meeting will be held this coming week.

     Sarah Freeman added that although the meeting was designed for stakeholder organizations only, members of the public also were able to make comments.

     Zoning Committee chairperson Dave Baron presented the report from the Zoning Committee’s meeting of December 7 at which the committee approved two requests for variances.

     Baron said the first involved a request by the owners of one of the condos at 225 Lamartine St., which presently is a two-unit condo building, who are seeking to convert their one unit into two units. The work will be done entirely within their existing unit and will not enlarge the footprint of the building.

     The other matter involved the property at 34 Sedgwick St., a two-family home, in which the owners are seeking to add a dormer and to demolish an existing garage at the rear of the property in order to construct an addition to their home.

     Baron said a number of neighbors supported the application.

     The full JPNC voted to approve the recommendations of the Zoning Committee. The homeowners now will go before the City of Boston Zoning Board of Appeals with the favorable recommendation from the JPNC.

     Paige Sparks reported about the recent meeting of the Outreach Committee, which she chairs. She recommended that Doug Rand be accepted as a community member of the Outreach Committee and the full council did so.

     Sparks said that the committee is working on its objectives to engage and recruit more members of the JP community, including high school students, to become involved with the JPNC.

     Sparks also presented two amendments to the JPNC’s by-laws that she said will extend the reach of the JPNC into the Jamaica Plain community.

     The first amendment would allow non-resident students over the age of 16 who attend schools in JP to become members of the Outreach Committee.

     After some discussion, the council members voted 6-4-1 in favor of the motion. However, because a change to the by-laws requires a 2/3 majority vote to pass, the amendment failed.

     There also was a lengthy discussion about Sparks’s second proposed by-law change that would limit community members to two terms on any of the council’s various sub-committees.

     If a community member wished to remain on a sub-committee beyond the two-term limit, then he or she would have to run for a position on the JPNC itself and then be appointed to that particular sub-committee.

     However, the amendment drew widespread opposition. Baron noted that there was value to the longevity of members on these sub-committees and Thorn added that volunteers who serve on committees should be allowed to serve for as long as they are able to do so without being forced to run for election to the JPNC itself.

     Doherty also commented that “long-serving community members of committees make outstanding contributions to these committees” and suggested that residents who volunteer to serve on these sub-committees may not want to run for an elected position on the JPNC.

     Peg Preble noted that one problem with “throwing people off” committees is that the council presently is having difficulty finding volunteers to fill its vacant seats, referring to JPNC chair Cohen’s statement at the beginning of the meeting that there presently are five vacancies on the JPNC itself with no apparent takers for the seats.

     The council voted 7-2-2 against the amendment.

     Michael Reiskind provided an update of the Public Service Committee. He said that a request of the Brendan Behan Pub, 378 Center Street, to change the closing time of its year-round patio from a 10:00 closing to a midnight closing recently was approved by the Boston Licensing Commission.

              In their final business of the evening, the members elected Renee Welch as the new chair of the JPNC’s Housing Development Committee.

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