JPNC committee shoots down housing fund

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz’s call for Whole Foods Market setting up a trust fund to support affordable housing in Jamaica Plain appears to be off the table, at least as far as the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s Ad Hoc Whole Foods committee is concerned.

Both opponents and proponents of Whole Foods’ move to JP said at a May 16 Ad Hoc committee meeting that they do not think the idea of Whole Foods funding an affordable housing trust is realistic.

Meanwhile, the committee is working down to the wire on a report on the potential impacts of Whole Foods’ planned move to JP, possible ways to mitigate the negative impacts, and possible alternatives to the new grocery store, committee chair Steve Laferriere told the Gazette. The committee plans to present the report to the full body of the JPNC at its May 31 meeting.

“I am looking forward to [the report] coming together in the next couple of days,” Laferriere told the Gazette in a phone interview last week. “The goal is to try to create something that speaks to [community] concerns in a way that most of the community feels is appropriate.”

Whole Foods, which has a 20-year lease for the grocery store space it plans to occupy at 415 Centre St., could decline to discuss or act on any of the ideas the committee is considering. It is unclear if store operations will require any new licenses, which would require a public process and potentially give the community some leverage.

If it turns out that Whole Foods does need a license, it would likely seek a recommendation for approval from the JPNC before applying to the city. The Ad Hoc committee’s report is mainly meant to be used as a reference to guide that potential conversation, Laferriere told the Gazette.

Chang-Díaz and Whole Foods did not respond to Gazette requests for comment for this article.

In general, the committee was focusing as much as it could on the potential impact of Whole Foods at a May 16 meeting at the Anna Mae Cole Community Center at Bromley Heath. A separate forum had been held at the JFK School on Bolster Street May 9 to discuss alternative uses for the space, but the results of that forum , which was attended by about 30 people, were not discussed at the May 16 meeting.

The idea behind the affordable housing trust fund—put forward by Chang-Díaz last month—is that Whole Foods’ planned move to the neighborhood will almost certainly accelerate gentrification. The trust fund would be a way to counteract that alleged effect.

“Even if Whole Foods behaves as the best corporate citizen…its presence will still light a fire under the gentrification process that will displace low- and moderate- income residents from JP,” Chang-Díaz wrote in an April 28 letter to the Ad Hoc committee. She also suggested in the letter that Whole Foods should break its lease on the grocery store space it is renting at 415 Centre St. and not move to JP is it does not agree to set up a trust fund.

But the idea of the fund was dismissed both by supporters and opponents of Whole Foods.

It is unlikely Whole Foods would be in a position to contribute enough to make such a fund meaningful, Benjamin Forman, a JP resident and housing policy expert, said at the May 16 Ad Hoc committee meeting.

Forman had been invited to the meeting at the request of Ad Hoc committee member Ann Mackin, who said she supports Whole Foods but wants to find ways to minimize the negative effects of potential gentrification.

“The average subsidy for an affordable housing unit is several hundred thousand dollars. If Whole Foods were to contribute $1 million, that would cover five units at the most,” Forman told the Gazette in a phone interview following the meeting. Forman works as the research director for the nonprofit think tank Mass Inc., but was speaking on his own behalf.

That $1 million number came from Ad Hoc Committee member Ben Mauer at the meeting, who said it is about the amount Whole Foods would end up donating to the community over 10 years, base on its current charitable giving practices.

“I think she exactly right on the issue,” Forman said of Chang-Díaz’s letter. But, “If we really value inclusiveness…the answer is housing policy.”

Forman’s recommendation was that the committee advocate for a 5 percent tax on the conversion of rental properties to condominiums. Such a tax would be much more lucrative, he said and it would be directed at property owners who are actually profiting from gentrification.

JPNC and Ad Hoc Committee member Jesse White—who drafted a JPNC resolution asking Whole Foods to reconsider moving to JP, which the council passed in February—said she doesn’t think the trust fund idea would work either. She had gotten similar advice, she said, from Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation staff members she had spoken to.

While it is unlikely that Whole Foods could support an affordable housing trust fund, they could support anti-displacement organizing, she said.

Anti-displacement organizing refers to public advocacy efforts to preserve affordable housing.

JPNDC spokesperson Sally Swenson confirmed that JPNDC staffers have spoken to members of the Ad Hoc committee, but declined to comment on the substance of those conversations.

The JPNDC has not traditionally focused on anti-displacement organizing. The JP-based non-profit City Life/Vida Urbana does anti-displacement work, but that group has largely focused its efforts on other neighborhoods in recent years.

Steve Meacham, a community organizer with City Life, told the Gazette that City Life is aware of the idea of asking Whole Foods to fund anti-displacement work, but no one has approached the group about taking it on.

The final report could include both recommendations about what efforts Whole Foods should contribute to and recommendations about policy initiatives JP residents could support, Lafferiere said at the meeting.

The Ad Hoc Committee also discussed the feasibility of recommending that Whole Foods “have a goal to hire 100 percent of its employees from Jamaica Plain, and guarantee that at least 90 percent of its employees across all levels will be local,” an idea that was controversial.

That idea was one of many included in a draft document describing potential impacts an mitigations by JPNC and Ad Hoc committee member Jesse White that was handed out at the meeting. Other ideas the committee is considering include: recommendations that Whole Foods should conduct a traffic study to determine the new store’s potential impact on the area and provide incentives for employees and shoppers who take public transportation.

The draft also includes recommendations that “Whole Foods could…agree not to sell any take-out or prepared food” to avoid competing with locally-owned businesses. And it suggests that “Whole Foods could triple the value of food stamps…so that it will be cost-effective for food program users to shop there.”

Mathews recommended that the final draft of the committee report should be presented at a community forum, and community recommendations should be incorporated into it. Laferriere said the May 31 deadline to submit the report the JPNC does not allow time for that and noted that all of the Ad Hoc committee meeting shave been advertised as open to the public.