Olmsted Place Developer’s $150K to Fund Tenant Organizing, Park Work

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An example of the work done by City Life/Vida Urbana. This is a City Council hearing on "just cause" evictions. Credit: City Life/Vida Urbana

On Tuesday the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council voted 10-1 to recommend grants totaling $150,000 to two JP organizations. The money comes from the mitigation fund from the Boston Residential Group, developers of Olmsted Place Apartments at 161A South Huntington Ave.

City Life/Vida Urbana would receive $145,000 for its two-year "Health Through Housing Justice" program along the Washington Street corridor; $5,000 would be given to  to the Fund for Boston Parks and Recreation on behalf of the Jamaica Pond Association for improvements to Jamaica Pond.

The 196-unit luxury apartment building overlooks Leverett Pond and Olmsted Park.

Lisa Owens Pinto, director of City Life, explained that the grant would underwrite the salaries of two community organizers who would help renters and landlords alike to "know their rights and stabilize their homes."

Council Member Jeffrey Wiesner was concerned that the small property owner not be adversely affected  by this program. Pinto said that buildings under six units and owner-occupied buildings would not be included in the organizing work. City Life's main goal, she said, is reach tenants of big landlords with multiple units. She said a No Fault Eviction law, City Life is collaborating with the Boston Tenant Coalition and others to get enacted, remains their priority.

"We want to help people stay in their homes," Pinto said.

Jamaica Plain News has a call in to Boston Residential Group for comment.

'Directly Connected to What We Were Fighting For'

Neighborhood Council Member Ben Day said that the grant to City Life "is directly connected to what we were fighting for to increase the number of affordable units" in the South Huntington Avenue development, referring to the December 2012 JPNC lawsuit.  Day was chairperson of the JPNC when  that suit was unanimously approved.

Day, who now leads the working group assigned to review funding proposals, said that the Jamaica Pond Association requested $50,000 for the Fund for Boston Parks and Recreation to be used for Jamaica Pond improvements.

No one from the Jamaica Pond Association was present to explain what the Fund was, how it works or if the JPA would determine how the money would be spent by the Parks Department. Council Member David Baron seemed to speak for most of the Council when he said he didn't know anything about the Fund for Boston Parks.

Council Member Jamey Lionette said that a reduction in the grant to City Life would reduce livable salaries. Pinto said that less grant money would mean fewer hours available on the Washington Street corridor."We have other restricted grants" for which CL/VU  is accountable.

Michael Reiskind, a council member who was a Boston Redevelopment Authority appointee to the 161A Huntington Ave. Impact Advisory Group, said the money should go directly to the parks abutting the development.

"After all, they [Boston Residential Group] are selling the view," Reiskind said.

One council member asked about updates on the grant. Pinto said she would provide quarterly reports or more frequently if requested.

It was not asked how the Jamaica Pond Association would report on how its grant was allocated.

Enthusiasm for City Life

There was no question of the Council's enthusiasm for City Life. Council Member Gert Thorn summed it up by saying, "It's not every day we can help people who are of lower income than ourselves. It's an opportunity that does not come along very often."

Council Member Kyle Smith said that the grant to City Life responds to the "constant dialogue in Boston about high rents and the threat of displacement."

From the audience, Helen Matthews, the quiet revolutionary of Jamaica Plain who never stops speaking out about social inequities, said she was "so incredibly excited about this money going to City Life. Fund it as fully as possible. I have lived in JP 15 years and have rented all that time. It's an unstable situation. Renters are always in the eye of the storm."

Day offered the motion that $5,000 be given to the Fund for Boston Parks on behalf of the Jamaica Pond Association and $145,00 be given to City Life for its Washington St corridor Housing Justice Program. The motion was seconded and passed 10 - 1.

JPNC Chair Kevin Moloney said that a reporting agreement would be worked out with City Life and the JPNC executive committee. He did not say if a similar agreement would be written with the Jamaica Pond Association/Fund for Boston Parks and Recreation.

The $5,000 voted for the Fund for Boston Parks would double their assets; its most recent IRS filing  listed its balance at $4,731. In existence since the 1990's, the Fund became tax exempt in August 2007. In its past four IRS filings it has never had a balance of more than $5,000.

The $150,000 mitigation fund allocated by the JPNC is the result of the lawsuit filed by the Council in December 2012 in which it contested the zoning variance requested by Boston Residential Group for developing the old Home for Little Wanderers building site at 161A S. Huntington Street. In October 2014 the JPNC and developer agreed on a court-advised settlement in which the developers would build a walkway from their property to the Jamaicaway; if this was not possible the settlement stated that the developers would donate $150,000 to a community group or organization recommended by the JPNC.

That was accomplished Tuesday.