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Roxbury neighbors spar over affordable housing

Sandra Larson | 3/5/2014, 10:06 a.m.

In many ways, the Bartlett Place development plans capture the many different aspirations of its Roxbury neighbors, with affordable and market-rate apartments and townhouses, retail shops and a public space for art and commerce.

In the architectural renderings, these elements are woven together in a cohesive community. But in the wider Roxbury community, a gulf divides proponents of low-income or market-rate housing, and rental or ownership opportunities, a rift becoming heated as more large real estate developments take shape in Roxbury. In public meetings, approval hearings, petitions and letters, questions of affordable housing, “gentrification” and economic opportunity spark impassioned debate among developers, city officials and community members hungry for economic prosperity.

“The mix of housing in Roxbury, present and future, is one of the most critical planning issues of our time,” City Councilor Tito Jackson said in a recent interview.

Plans for the massive Bartlett Place development approved last fall have angered some community members who say the project’s delay in home ownership opportunities and over-emphasis on affordable housing reflects a dim view of Roxbury’s potential. The project by Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation and Windale Developers is slated to bring new residential, retail, office and public uses to the 8.6-acre former MBTA bus yard a few blocks outside Dudley Square in the Highland Park neighborhood. The multi-phased construction is expected to start later this year and continue over five to 10 years.

Rodney Singleton, a Fort Hill homeowner and moderator of a Highland Park neighborhood online discussion group, has advocated for owner-occupied units to be built in the first phase of construction. He has argued passionately in meetings, online discussions and public letters that home ownership is what will build wealth in Roxbury and enable residents to withstand rising property values without being displaced.

“The [Request for Proposal] for Bartlett said first and foremost, ‘opportunities to build wealth,’” said Singleton, who served on the project review committee, “but right out of the gate, the first building at Bartlett Place gives no wealth-building. Just renting.”

While the project’s long-term master plan includes rental apartments and townhouses, documents for phase one filed in 2013 with the Boston Redevelopment Authority indicate 60 affordable rental apartments and 42 market-rate rental apartments, along with some retail, commercial and public plaza space.

This angers Singleton, who has argued not just for home-buying opportunities to come sooner, but for a higher proportion of market-priced housing. The RFP suggested either 85 percent market and 15 percent affordable or an equal three-way split of market-rate, middle-income affordable and low-income affordable. Singleton’s view is that Roxbury is already “saturated” with affordable housing, and that continuing to prioritize it sends a fatalistic message that local residents will never move up the economic ladder.

“The idea that we should assume Roxbury will always be poor is a failed policy,” he said.

Nearly half of all existing housing units in Roxbury are designated affordable, according to the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, meaning they are rented or sold at a below-market price only to people who meet income eligibility requirements, usually a certain percent below the area median income number.