FHII talks housing prices

David Taber

Forest Hills¬—Installing trash cans, restricting street directions, and space for farmers markets and concerts were some of the ideas discussed at the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII) meeting last week, but affordable housing once again dominated the conversation.

Over 85 Forest Hills residents attended the May 31 meeting at Boston English High School hosted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).

It was the fourth in a series of six such meetings aimed at developing a set of community guidelines for an expected spate of development in the neighborhood in coming years.

The guidelines will be attached to the MBTA’s Request For Proposals when, this fall, it puts three parcels around the Forest Hills subway station up for sale. The MBTA will then be required to sell the parcels to the highest bidder with a proposal deemed reasonable in the context of the guidelines.

The guidelines will also inform the development of a portion of the Arborway bus yard [see related article] the MBTA plans to sell once it has redesigned the yard, the potential sale of a portion of the commuter parking lot and, if it is ever sold, the privately owned Fitzgerald parking lot.

In response to questions raised at previous meetings, BRA deputy director of housing Sheila Dillon made a short presentation about affordable housing strategies and incomes of residents in Jamaica Plain and Forest Hills.

Dillon said, because of the size of the lots, they would not be suitable for public housing, and the economy of the area could not support high-end luxury condominiums.

“The area will support moderate affordable or market-rate condominiums in the high $200,000 to low $300,000 range,” she said.

The charts and data Dillon provided were crunched a number of different ways, on the spot, by meeting attendees.

According to that information, approximately 28 percent of Forest Hills residents earn less than $25,000-a-year, and about 50 percent earn less than $50,000-a-year.

A two-person family is eligible for affordable housing under Boston’s inclusionary zoning laws if they earn between $45,000 and $57,000 a year.

These figures led many to suggest that it might be wise to push for a higher rate of affordable housing than the 15 percent Boston requires for new developments of 10 units or more.

There was also talk of redefining affordability. The $45,000 figure is the median income for the City of Boston (BMI). JP’s median income is $38,000. Forest Hills resident Red Burrows, who sits on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, said he wants to see the affordable housing requirements reflect the local median.

“I think I am thinking of, instead of sticking with 100 percent (BMI) going to 80 percent or lower,” Burrows said.

Dillon cautioned that instituting too high of an affordable housing requirement would limit the pool of interested developers to those experienced at securing state and federal subsidies for their projects.

Some expressed concerns that increased affordable housing requirements could compromise the quality of construction at the sites. Others said they want to include environmental sustainability guidelines above and beyond the LEED requirements the City of Boston now imposes on developers.

“We need to figure out where the balance is, or what our priority is,” said one resident.

At least one area homeowner brought up concerns about the effect increased affordable development will have on property values in the neighborhood. Pam Bender, a Forest Hills resident and member of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, said some neighbors have expressed concerns about increased crime rates to her in private conversations. “I don’t think this is in fact true. One thing I want to see brought out is information about the impact of affordable housing on neighborhoods,” she said.

Bender said she was happy that more attention was paid to affordable housing than at previous meetings, and she credited the JPNC’s Housing and Development committee with effecting some changes in this meeting’s format.

They met with representatives from the BRA in May and made a number of recommendations about how the meetings could be improved, Bender said.

“One of the goals was to allow more time for small groups and make the goals of the discussions clearer,” she said.

John Dalzell, the BRA’s senior architect for the project said affordable housing will be discussed further at future meetings, but they will focus more on the transportation and street planning.

He said the BRA will write up the community guidelines based on the meeting series, and there will be a public comment period before they are submitted to the MBTA.

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