By Carolyn Komatsoulis
BU News Service
BOSTON – In the 19th century, Bostonians flocked to new houses in Jamaica Plain. The homes, which included single-family houses and triple-deckers, housed people looking for suburban living, according to the Boston Landmarks Commission.
Now, JP residents have voiced concerns about an affordable housing shortage, despite ongoing efforts by the city of Boston and JP neighborhood groups to build affordable housing.
The Boston Displacement Mapping Project issued a map showing in parts of JP, 40 to 60 percent of renter households pay 30 percent or more of household income on rent. The Walsh administration has committed $115 million to affordable housing, including $15 million this February, according to a February 22nd press release from the mayor’s office. A JP development, 125 Amory Street, received a funding award, according to the release.
The state, federal government and other community organizations offer subsidized housing for people who can’t afford market rate housing, according to mass.gov. These subsidies include voucher programs and public housing.
“Boston is a very strong job market and is a place [with] high demand for houses, so prices are very high for purchase and also for rental,” said Shomon Shamsuddin, an assistant professor of social policy at Tufts University. “Finding affordable housing at just about every income level is a challenge, but especially for low-income families. There is a growing concern that subsidies aren’t enough.”
JP residents and activists said flawed data on income levels makes a shortage of housing worse. Luxury developments are unhelpful and development in JP is too dense. All agreed the efforts aren’t enough.
The shortage of affordable housing lies in supply and demand, Shamsuddin said.
“A big challenge is housing production isn’t really keeping up,” he said. “There are a lot of restrictions on housing construction in Boston and the surrounding metro area. If the housing is constrained, prices are going to go up.”
However, JP housing activist Kathy Brown of the Boston Tenant Coalition said the mayor’s “build, build, build” mentality toward affordable housing is all wrong.
“The city will say, ‘Oh, if you just increase the supply, it will trickle down,’ and it’s like, that’s not been the experience,” Brown said. “Creating more high-end units doesn’t help low- to moderate-income people. We believe it has the other impact by increasing rents in the area.”
Brown said another problem lies in the area median income, the measurement used to calculate the price of affordable housing. Developers use the AMI to set aside a certain number of houses that will be affordably priced.
They calculate income from wealthy suburbs and mix it with Boston income to get the AMI, said Brown.
“[AMI] makes the housing less realistic,” she said.
The median household income is $58,516 in Boston and is $79,419 in Jamaica Plain, according to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey five-year estimates.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calculated the AMI for the Boston-Cambridge-Quincy area in 2017 to have been $72,400 for a household of one person and $103,400 for a household of four people, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s website.
The Walsh administration responded to a request for comment with a link to Boston’s housing website and a link to a 2017 blog post written by the city’s housing chief, Sheila Dillon.
“As an escalating number of residents compete for a fixed number of homes, home prices and rents in more and more neighborhoods have risen beyond low-income and middle-class budgets,” Dillon wrote. “To date, more than 13,500 new units of housing have come online.”
Those units are part of the Walsh Administration’s plan, “Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030,” which involves creating 53,000 new housing units by 2030.
The Walsh administration said in a March 27 press release more than 17,000 new housing units have been constructed and 19.2 percent of those units are for low and moderate income families.
However, JP residents apply for affordable housing in far greater numbers than is available.
Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation had 3,000 applicants for 39 affordable housing units at their 75 Amory Avenue project last year, according to JPNDC’s website.
When Urban Edge, a Boston-based group whose services include housing stability, opened 37 affordable units in their Jackson Commons project, about 2,000 people applied for the units, said their director of community engagement Robert Torres.
“Our shortest waitlist is anywhere from five to seven years long,” Torres said. “People have to move out in order for someone to move in.”
Urban Edge owns just over 1,300 units of affordable housing, said Torres.
“It takes a long time to build affordable housing, just because of the communication process, which takes a while,” Torres said. “You have to get city approval, get approval for zoning and then apply for funding. The funding sources are scarce.”
Torres said they get city, state and federal funds, but the whole process can take several years. He said Urban Edge started a Walker Park Apartments project in 2014 in Egleston Square that will add 49 affordable housing units. They expect to complete it by the end of 2018.
“It’s taken four years,” Torres said. “We are very proud of those  more units of affordable housing but recognize that that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what we really need.”
Torres said it isn’t hard for Urban Edge to get community support for affordable housing projects, but there are divisions.
“In general, you see a lot of splits in the community,” he said. “Some of the recent community conversations have been split about who wants more density and who wants decreased density, who wants more parking and who wants less parking.”
JP resident Pam Kristan said she is worried she will be pushed out of her apartment this year because affordable housing is not being built in her area.
“They’re giving it a shot, but affordable means something to some people and other things to other people,” Kristan said. “What’s going up in JP right now is not affordable for me, period.”