The Housing and Development Committee of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council held a regular monthly meeting last Tuesday, February 21.
Chairperson Renee Stacey Welch and the approximately 20 committee and community members who were in attendance took up a wide-ranging set of issues.
Chief among them was a discussion of the state’s plans for the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital property that is within Franklin Park and abuts the Stony Brook neighborhood. The hospital, which has 260 in-patient beds, will be closing in 2024 and relocating to a new facility in the South End.
The state has announced plans to develop the land with supportive housing that will be targeted to individuals and families who have experienced chronic homelessness and who also face the challenges of chronic illnesses, mental health needs, or substance use disorders.
However, in late 2021, the state constructed temporary housing on a portion of the hospital’s parking lot in order to alleviate the homelessness crisis at the infamous Mass. and Cass intersection.
It was evident from the members’ comments that there is both anger about the present situation and apprehension about the state’s future plans for the site.
A member of the committee, who lives near to the site, said that the area has become a disposal area for needles and other heroin-related paraphernalia. He said he used to take his young son to play in the park, but that no longer is possible because of the open and rampant drug use by the new residents.
“I have sympathy, but I believe in tough love,” said another member, who suggested that those with a substance abuse issue who are accepted into the housing program must agree to enter into treatment and remain clean. “The people who live in the communities abutting these developments should not be left to absorb the problems there.
“We should not have residents picking up needles while residents are shooting up,” he continued. “People who live there have to help themselves. If we’re willing to give them housing, they have to be held to a certain type of behavior.
“We need to stand up for the people of this community,” he added. “If the drug dealers are following them, and no one is being required to take services, then we have a big problem.”
However, it was pointed out by another member that the units there now are just temporary housing and are not reflective of the solution for permanent housing being proposed for the area.
There also was a lot of conjecture about the possible size of the eventual project. The state’s official web site states that there may be 75-100 units of housing, but some members say the actual figure may be closer to 400.
One member noted that the scope of the project “has not been shared, which is causing a lot of anxiety,” among JP residents. “This has not been an authentic public process from the outset.”
“I’m scared to death of the additional 400 units that might go in there,” said one member. “This is a very high density project in a small area, especially because it is abutting the Stony Brook neighborhood. Adding another 400 units would overly-burden the area.”
“This is a big one, a big topic,” agreed another member, who reiterated that the state’s plans for the Shattuck project call for permanent supportive housing (as opposed to the temporary housing in place now), half for families and half for individuals, with the homeless having priority.
“What I’m getting from families and others in the neighborhood is that we really don’t know what’s happening with this project,” said Welch.
“It is important that at our next meeting we have the facts about the project,” said another member.
The group also discussed the Forest Hill/Arborway Yard/Garage project being undertaken by the MBTA. The project has been on the MBTA’s radar since 1999, but it finally is gathering momentum because of the T’s desire to change its bus fleet to all-electric buses. The new garage will house charging stations for 200 electric buses, which is double the present number of gas-powered buses that currently use the facility. The electric buses will go into service immediately along Jamaica Plain’s bus routes, with the T hoping to have an entirely-electric bus fleet throughout its system by 2040.
The original Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the scope of the project among the MBTA, the city, and JP community groups was written in 1999. However, it was noted that the MOU is outdated in many respects because of the transformational changes that have occurred in the area over the past 25 years.
Among the most significant of the T’s changes in its plans for the development of the parcel is a reduction in the size of the area that was to be designated for community development. The original MOU called for turning over eight acres on the site for community development purposes, but the T’s updated plan has shrunk that space to 6.4 acres, a change that has drawn the ire of the JP community.
The so-called City Pole Yard also was due to be removed per the 1999 plan, but the city now has stated that it will be retaining the site for maintenance purposes and staging for snow removal equipment.
The group raised other issues with the T’s plan, such as the lack of landscaping and the spectre of a structure with a blank facade, which members asserted are major deficiencies given the garage’s location within the Emerald Necklace area.
On another topic, the committee discussed the contents of a proposed letter to the mayor’s office, suggesting that there be more affordable housing as a percentage (25%) of all future housing developments than what Mayor Wu has called for. The city presently requires that 12 percent of new housing be affordable, but the mayor has proposed to increase the level of inclusionary housing to 17 percent, a figure which the group felt was too low.
Welch proposed adding a separate line regarding the need to educate small landlords about the use of rental vouchers.
“The low-hanging fruit we should talk about is small landlords. How do we educate landlords about how to navigate the system for tenants with vouchers? If for some reason rents are withheld, landlords go right to eviction,” said Welch, who herself is a landlord. “A lot of landlords, especially women, are afraid to use the rental voucher system.”
The group will be drafting a letter that will go to the full JPNC for approval before it is sent to the mayor.
In other matters, the members discussed how they can increase the diversity of their committee to include more renters, persons of color, and younger residents.
Welch also presented an update on the status of the Forbes Building, telling the group that rent protection for the low-income, subsidized tenants has been extended through the end of the year.