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Jamaica Plain activists press Walsh on affordability

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Jamaica Plain activists press Walsh on affordability
Mayor Martin Walsh speaks to housing activists during his Jamaica Plain Coffee hour, part of his schedule of neighborhood meet-and-greets.

Mayor Martin Walsh’s Jamaica Plain coffee hour, held on the lawn of the Hunnewell Visitor Center at the Arnold Aboretum, began like any other of the regularly-scheduled meet-and-greets held throughout the city. But after Walsh’s opening remarks, the two dozen or so affordable housing activists who surrounded the mayor gave the event a distinctly Jamaica Plain flavor.

The activists, who are demanding increased affordable housing targets for the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Plan: JP/Rox process, engaged Walsh in a 20-minute conversation about the planning process and the ongoing displacement of the majority low-income residents of the Washington Street Corridor.

Speaking for the group, Jamaica Plain resident Kelsey Galeano summed up the group’s differences with the BRA, calling into question their affordable housing goals.

“Basically, their plan — the BRA’s plan — is to have 70 percent market-rate,” she said. “Less than 30 percent is going to be affordable housing. Affordable housing according to the city, right?”

Galeano explained to the mayor that the affordable housing guidelines advanced by the city are calling for rents and home prices affordable to those earning as much as 70 percent of the HUD-defined Area Median Income, which is $69,000 for a family of four. Yet, as Galeano noted, three quarters of households in the area earn less than that, and half earn less than $35,000 a year.

When Galeano told Walsh that many neighborhood residents were against the BRA plan, Walsh told her there is no plan.

“It’s not something to be for or against,” he said. “It’s a process about what people want to see in their community.”

The activists won a minor victory last week when the BRA announced it would extend the planning process for an additional three months, a move the activists had been advocating.

“After carefully considering the thoughtful feedback that we heard from many groups of community members in recent weeks, we agree that more time is necessary to continue to work through components of the plan collaboratively,” BRA Director Brian Golden and Department of Neighborhood Development Director Sheila Dillon said in a letter.

The affordable housing protests come as the Washington Street corridor is seeing an unprecedented push from developers proposing luxury units in the predominantly low-income area. One of the largest developments proposed for the area — 3200 Washington Street — drew vociferous opposition from affordable housing advocates, many of whom said the 76-unit development would drive rents up in the area.

In September of last year, the Zoning Board of Appeal gave the project the green light in a little-publicized hearing that the office of Massachusetts Attorney General ruled violated the state’s Open Meeting Law. The attorney general’s ruling requires ZBA members to take trainings on the state’s Open Meeting Law.

Another large project at the corner of Washington and Green streets calls for the teardown of existing office space and the construction of a six-story, 44-unit rental building where project developers estimate one-bedroom rents will be $1,800.

Affordable housing activists say they would like for the city to make more land available to nonprofit developers like the Neighborhood Development Corporation of Jamaica Plain and Urban Edge. But the luxury development proposals are continuing to pop up in the neighborhood even as community members haggle with the BRA over process and affordable housing guidelines.

“It seems like a disconnect,” Galeano said. “The developers are coming in and just saying this is what we’re going to do. At meetings, BRA officials are supporting private developers. They’re saying this is what’s going to happen.”

The activists who surrounded Walsh at the Aboretum scored one minor victory: Walsh agreed to meet with the group.

“We got that on video tape,” Galeano said.