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Activists, city officials square off during JP planning meeting

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Activists, city officials square off during JP planning meeting
Affordable housing activists stage a die-in at the BRA’s Plan: JP/Rox planning meeting.

For much of the last year, affordable housing activists in Jamaica Plain and city officials working on the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Plan: JP/Rox master planning project have been talking past each other.

On the web

Key documents related to the BRA’s Inclusionary Development Policy can be viewed at: http://www.bostonredevelop mentauthority.org/housing/key-documents

PLAN: JP/ROX: http://www.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org/planning/planning-initiatives/plan-jp-rox

BRA officials are set to vote on their plan in October, paving the way for changes in zoning that could speed the pace of development in the triangular-shaped area running from Jackson Square in the north to Egleston Square in the east, then down to Forest Hills in the south.

While the city officials have been preoccupied with transportation corridors, activated streetscapes and incremental increases in the required 13 percent affordability for new housing construction, the activists have expressed alarm at the pace of displacement of low-income renters along the Washington Street corridor and fear that the BRA will do little to stem the rising tide of gentrification.

“I’ve seen a lot of my friends move out of the area to places like Brockton,” said 15-year-old Dulce Bernal, speaking through a megaphone at the Plan: JP/Rox meeting held last week at English High School. “They want to push us out.”

Bernal and others who spoke against what they see as a rapidly growing displacement took over a few tables at the center of the English High cafeteria, unfurled banners and shouted slogans through their megaphone, while BRA officials ushered community residents, developers and other interested parties through poster board displays that showed their strategies for density, transportation, land use and other planning issues.

The demonstrators say that the $900,000 townhouse and luxury condos and apartments are out of reach for the majority of families in the area, who typically earn $35,000 a year. They have asked the BRA to mandate that 70 percent of new units in the designated locale be affordable, a sharp contrast to the 30 percent target guiding city officials.

“You started at 30 percent, you’re still at 30 percent — that’s not progress,” shouted J.P. resident Danielle Sommer through the megaphone. “Don’t vote in October. We need real negotiations.”

While there was no negotiation with BRA officials last week, Department of Neighborhood Development Director Sheila Dillon did open a door to dialogue, speaking directly to the demonstrators.

“We want to maximize affordable housing in this corridor,” she said. “You have my word on it. Where we have difficulty, I think, is the private housing and how much we can extract from that.”

Because private developers control most of the developable land in the planning area, Dillon said the city has little leverage to push beyond the 13 percent affordability guideline in the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy.

Affordable housing activists argued that doing nothing would be better than facilitating increased development of luxury buildings that they say are driving up rents in the area.

“We should declare this an emergency zone where no development can occur,” said activist Laura Foner. “We can’t say we’ll build luxury housing because that’s the only way we’ll be able to eke out a few affordable units.”

During the Plan: JP/Rox process, BRA officials have been advocating a policy that would allow developers to increase building heights beyond limits outlined in the zoning code in exchange for an increase in the required percentage of affordable units on site, from 13 to 17 percent.

Danielle, who says she was able to find affordable housing in the neighborhood, said the city’s focus should be on stopping displacement.

“For every one of me, there are dozens that have moved out,” she said. “What kind of city kicks out its young people?”

Dillon said that the city has to respond to the increasing demand for housing.

“Our population, whether we like it or not, is going through the roof,” she said. “They’re coming into every neighborhood. People are being displaced. We can do nothing, or we can do something to stop it. We want to build more affordable housing than we’ve ever built before.”

Dillon noted that 20 percent of the city’s housing stock is deed-restricted affordable, a greater percentage than in any other U.S. city.

“We need more of it,” she said. “We need to push and do as much as we can.”

Activist Yohana Beyene countered that the city has been working hard to recruit tech workers and corporations like General Electric — bringing in the very high-income residents who are pushing up rents and housing prices. And of the housing that is being built, the overwhelming majority of units are not affordable to the average Bostonian.

“Be honest about who you guys are building for,” she said.

Dillon said she and other city officials would continue to listen to community residents, but stressed that the BRA’s plan for the JP/Rox area would go before the BRA board for a vote in October.

“We’re not going to open this up again,” she said.

Dillon’s dialogue notwithstanding, most of the city officials at the meeting did not engage the protesters. But many of the participants did, moving between the BRA planning poster boards and the gathering of housing activists at the center of the cafeteria.

“This is a thoughtful design,” said Dr. Megan Sandel, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center and associate professor of public health at Boston University School of Public Health. “But the reality is there’s going to be painful tradeoffs.”

Sandel, many of whose patients live in the area, said housing stress is emerging as a major public health issue.

“Development is not bad,” she said. “Displacement is bad.”