The sixth Jamaica Plain State of our Neighborhood (SOON) community town hall convened on a damp Thursday evening April 7. The annual gathering was organized in large part by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) -- which has emerged in recent years as a leading social housing advocate in Jamaica Plain -- as well as by Egleston Square Main Street, the Hyde Square Task Force, Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition, among others.
The hallmark of SOON is the town hall format wherein elected officials take questions from a neighborhood panel on specific topics. This year, arts and culture and food justice were included in the line-up, and, as usual, housing made the list, leading to a spirited panel discussion, as well as an opportunity for local non-governmental organizations, including City Life, the Boston Tenant Coalition and Mass Alliance, to network and strategize.
"Make no mistake about it: It's advocacy that makes all the difference," said State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, who was joined on stage by State Rep. Liz Malia, District 6 City Councilor Matt O'Malley, District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson, and Sheila Dillon, Chief of Housing and Director of Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development.
In his introduction to the evening's line-up, Giovanny Valencia, senior community organizer for the JPNDC, noted that SOON had achieved many of its goals from the 2015 assembly, including:
- A master planning process is underway for the Jamaica Plain/Roxbury Washington Street Corridor; and
- Displacement is being addressed through such measures as a new inclusionary development policy and the filing of a proposed just-cause eviction legislation.
Sebastian Zapata, a Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council member, asked the politicians on stage about the proposed Community Preservation Act (CPA), a tool that would impose a 1 percent surcharge on Boston property tax bills to be used towards preserving open space and historic sites, creating affordable housing, and developing outdoor recreational facilities. More than 150 of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts have adopted the CPA. Passage of the legislation in Boston, were it to appear on this November's ballot, would trigger matching state funds.
O'Malley, a co-sponsor of the bill when it was introduced, noted that Boston voters rejected the measure in 2001. In order to succeed in putting the CPA on the ballot this fall, "We have to run this like a campaign," he said.
Jackson put it in dollars-and-cents terms. The CPA comes down to $23.09 a year for the average homeowner, or 44 cents a week. "We need those dollars to deal with displacement," he said. "We have 4,000 homeless students in the Boston Public Schools. This would give us another tool to combat that."
Sanchez -- after emphatically stating that "all of us up here are staunch defenders and staunch fighters for housing" -- expressed some concerns about the CPA. "I struggle with it. I'm not against it. I'm afraid it is just a pot to fill holes," he said, referencing the way CPA funds are divvied up into different categories by percentages. "We have to leverage more resources, not divide them up," he said. He added that much housing has been built in Jamaica Plain, from Jackson Square to the former Blessed Sacrament property in Hyde Square, without monies from the CPA.
Malia argued that the area median income (AMI) formula is inaccurate, as it draws on income data from outside Boston, a sentiment Jackson quickly echoed, pointing to wealthy towns like Wellesley that drive up the area median.
"We're swimming upstream here," Malia said. "Hospital workers, service employees, janitors and retail workers will be driven out of Boston. Then what will the rest of the city do?"
Dillon said the city has not yet decided whether to support the CPA legislation. "The mayor [Marty Walsh] is taking this under review. We want to look at the impacts, such as on small businesses," she said. Boston is seeking more money for housing, she added, such as through increased fees on developers in the city's Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP).
Jackson gave the city tremendous credit for the IDP, saying it will increase on-site affordable units in housing developments. Additionally, "Were very lucky in this neighborhood to have JPNDC and Urban Edge." That being said, "There's more work that we need to do in Egleston Square," he said. He is concerned about the middle-income homebuyer, and thinks elected officials need to talk more about density. "One thousand more units in our neighborhood is not going to flatten [housing] prices," he said.
One of the most frustrating problems, according to Malia, is that the costs of of maintaining a livable home -- replacing a roof, for instance -- can quickly outpace residents' ability to pay. Moreover, she has concerns about the affordability of the massive developments springing up in Forest Hills, as well as the unknowns around the property formerly occupied by a certain well-loved McBride Street pub.
"Now there's James's Gate. [The property] has a lot of potential. I don't know yet what the new owners are planning, but it can affect the quality of life for all of us," Malia said, adding that concerned residents "may need to fight."
Another problem, Sanchez said, is that it is "ridiculously expensive to build here" in Boston, and there ought to be financing mechanisms to target where the needs are. But he says he's optimistic that progress is being made in such areas as Jackson Square.
Dillon noted that the JP/Rox area is currently 30-percent deed-restricted for affordable housing, a ratio the city will aim to maintain.
Yamilet Torres of the Bromley Heath Tenants Organization asked the panelists whether they would support a just-cause eviction ordinance, which was the subject of a preliminary Boston City Council hearing March 14. Jaskson said there's a need to "hash out the details," but in a city growing by about 15,000 people a year ... we dont want to see people who have been through difficult times to be pushed out." O'Malley added that the ordinance is "simply right," adding, "I'm here to say you can be against rent control but for just-cause eviction."
Dillon said the mayor's administration is "very interested in some form of just-cause eviction" and is "absolutely in favor of notifying residents of their rights during an eviction." Toward these ends keeping residents informed of their rights, Walsh announced in January the creation of an Office of Housing Stability, she added.
Torres also asked about the future of public housing tenants. Jackson, O'Malley and Malia all expressed concern about the planned public-private partnerships at Boston Housing Authority sites throughout the city (125 Amory St is one). "We need to hold [private developers] accountable," O'Malley said. Moreover, "we can fund our own public housing by passing a millionaires tax that can raise $5 million a year in city vouchers," he said, the audience erupting in loud applause in approval of that recommendation.
Politicians Discuss JP Arts and Culture at State of our Neighborhood