Community deeply divided about supportive housing at Shattuck Hospital campus

A deeply contentious public hearing about the proposal to put supportive housing on the Shattuck Campus led to conflicting priorities being expressed from the community.

Residents argued that the planning process for the land should be more inclusive of the community’s concerns, that the Shattuck campus should be returned to parkland, or that supportive housing was necessary.

The public hearing, which was at the clubhouse at the William J. Devine Golf Course on May 15 and was filled with about 60 people, was to discuss the proposal to lease up to two acres of the Shattuck Hospital campus to a not-yet-identified developer in order to build supportive housing. Supportive housing is permanent housing which combines affordability and supportive services for people that were previously homeless. It’s usually built by nonprofit developers and includes 24 hour staffing. The state is now going through the process to get approval to offer that land for lease for this purpose.

The ultimate green-light will come from the Asset Management Board (AMB), which hears proposals for long-term leases of state property. The board is made up of five people including the commissioner of Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), the state inspector general, and three appointees of the Governor. There is a two-step process to gain approval from the AMB which includes a preliminary project proposal, a public hearing, and a final project proposal with the AMB. The preliminary project proposal and public hearing have now been completed.

The preliminary proposal for supportive housing at the campus was submitted almost a year ago, in July 2017, before the public new of plans to move the Shattuck Hospital to the South End, which were revealed earlier this year.

“Over a year ago, it came to our attention that the Newton Pavillion building was being offered for sale,” said Beth Rubenstein, deputy commissioner of DCAMM, in a short presentation before the hearing. “So when the Commonwealth heard about that, we took a look at it, and determined that the hospital might be a good option for the uses that today are being used by the Shattuck Hospital. So there’s been a long many-month due diligence process where we’ve been considering whether or not the new building makes sense for the Shattuck. We have determined we do think it’s a very good idea to enter into an agreement, which we’ve now done, to long term lease that building, and during that hiatus period, the whole future of the Shattuck was a little bit up in the air, so this supportive housing project went on a little bit of a hiatus.”

Rubenstein said that the supportive housing is based off the idea of housing first.

“Housing first is the theory that some folks that have been homeless have a multitude of problems, but it’s the notion that the first thing you want to do is provide permanent safe housing, and then provide a comfortable environment to help them with the issues that they may have,” Rubenstein said.

The Pavilion will be renovated before the Shattuck Hospital beds are moved over, which should be by 2021. In the meantime, the state will begin a 12 month planning process for the future of the Shattuck campus, which will start in July. The supportive housing project, which would use up to two acres of the 13 acre campus, will be voted on before that planning process even begins, which concerned many residents at the hearing. DCAMM’s position is to move forward with the project now because of the City’s housing crisis warranting a faster action.

“We feel the need for housing is very great, and we felt it was very important to keep moving,” Rubenstein said.

But some residents argued that the need for housing didn’t warrant a “rushed” planning process.

“The need for supportive housing and other kinds of housing is always going to be very urgent, it always has been, and it always will be,” said Pete Stidman, a resident. “But that doesn’t mean that we should rush through it.”

Valerie Lowe, a property owner near the park, was also very concerned about the process.

“This is being rushed,” Lowe said. “You say you started in 2017, and yet we’re going to have a 12-month planning process for the rest of the campus. If [the process] looks like this, this is just a done deal. This process should not be happening, and it needs to stop and be restarted.”

Lowe and others also said that outreach about the public hearing was not advertised well enough.

“If thought had gone into this, it seems to me, that this room should be filled,” Lowe said.

Matthew Good, a lifelong resident of Roxbury since 1930, was strongly opposed to the project because he felt that the land should be put to another use to improve the park, and that the City was putting something that the community didn’t want in the park.

“This land is the jewel of the Emerald Necklace,” Good said. “If you’re going to do something, you should do something that enhances the park. There are other choices that can be made without destroying something which a man like Olmsted put into place…This will have a negative effect on the ambiance of the park and the people who live here. We have enough difficulties already.”

Good also spoke about institutional racism and a lack of power that he felt his community had in stopping projects that would negatively affect their neighborhood.

“I have no illusions that what I or anyone else who opposes this project will make any difference in stopping it, but at least you will have heard what our history is about this land, and we showed up and expressed our opinions,” Good said. “I know that this is not about housing chronically homeless people. The issue is that people live here that don’t have any power, and have never had any power in the City of Boston.”

The exact location of the proposed project is not defined yet, but is currently thought to be at the far end of the campus from the entrance. There was a restriction put on the Shattuck Campus in 1950 that the campus should be used only for public health services. Supportive housing meets that requirement, but some residents wanted to know explore other options for potential use of the site.

“This is a huge opportunity for the state, and it’s being rushed through. There’s not a lot of thinking going on about how these two acres will integrate with what the other acres will be,” said Pete Stidman. “I would want to consider way more options for the use, especially considering the history of this site. Parkland is important, and this piece is very important because it connects the Emerald Necklace.”

Some residents referenced the history of the land and how it used to be public parkland, and said that there was no better public health purpose for the site than parkland. Residents also said that the use of the park for private housing was not consistent with the purpose of the park, which is for the public. They felt like it was a radical and rapid change from the previous use of the land, and that it warranted a much more thoughtful planning process.

Sarah Horsley, an affordable housing advocate and resident, supported the use of supportive housing for the site.

“Now, we are in a crisis in this city,” Horsley said. “People are being forced out of the city, and it’s not going to look the same and have the same diversity as it is now if we don’t do something. This is one place where we can do something. I’m all for public process, I also feel that this is urgent. Yeah, it’s people’s homes, but people need homes.”

Horsley, also representing the JP Housing and Economic Development Committee, spoke for the committee about some of their concerns. These included whether or not there was a long term commitment from the state to ensure services in the housing, and the request to have a designated contact person for the process to make it easier to share information.

Tensions rose at several points in the meeting. At one point, Lauren Peters, the state undersecretary for health policy, was defensive about how the 12-month public planning process is effective.

“You’re not asking what we want to see, you’re starting with a proposal for supportive housing,” Stidman said. “You’re just not involving the neighborhood. You’ve already picked two acres for the housing. Maybe the community doesn’t want that space for housing.”

“That is exactly how we’re planning on conducting this planning process,” Peters said. She said that they will also hire a consultant to manage the community planning process, and will have a board of community members.

Stidman did not agree.

“You’re not coming here with open ears asking what we want to do here,” he said about the supportive housing project.

Mary Lahey, part of an organization to end homelessness in Boston, was in support of the supportive housing, saying that homelessness is “absolutely a public health issue because there are a lot of people living on the streets.”

“Formerly homeless people, when given housing, are very capable of flourishing and being good members of the community,” Lahey said.

Mark St. Charles, who used to be homeless, spoke about how important it was to his life that he was provided with supportive housing.

“People can turn their lives around,” St. Charles said. “I got housed, and I got lucky. It did so much for me. It gave me hope and I was able to turn my life around. It can happen, believe me, and you can’t judge me.”

Some people opposing the supportive housing proposal responded directly to this comment.

“It’s not about you not having space, it’s about all of us having space, so that when we get housing, there’s some place that we can come to enjoy,” Good said in response to St. Charles.

State Representative Liz Malia, who did not publicly express her thoughts on the plan at the hearing, came to the defense of St. Charles.

“This conversation is not helpful,” Malia said. “I understand your pain and the history about racism that you’re talking about because I’ve lived here a long time, but I’m also a person in recovery, so I might be dead now except I was lucky enough for someone to reach out and help me and they gave me a place to live. That’s why what we heard from this gentleman over here isn’t that one person deserves more than somebody else.”

At that, Malia walked out of the room, and the hearing abruptly ended.

The Asset Management Board holds public meetings every other month. The next meeting is July 17 at 3 p.m. at 1 Ashburton Place. If the AMB approves the supportive housing lease, they will enter into a competitive developer selection process to get a developer on board, which would be no sooner than spring 2019.

Comments on the project can be submitted to DCAMM by May 31 by emailing [email protected].

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