Jamaica Plain activists, policy makers discuss Boston’s affordable housing crisis at neighborhood forum

Preservation of Affordable Housing Development Associate Nathalie Janson addresses community members Monday night at a forum on affordable housing. The event's moderator Qainat Khan of WBUR sits with panelists Barry Bluestone, founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, and Boston City Councilor Lydia Edward. (Photo by Martha Merrow/ BU News Service)

By Martha Merrow
BU News Service

JAMAICA PLAIN — How can Boston’s working class face the affordable housing crisis? What restrictions are presented in the way of zoning reform? And what is a progressive housing policy?

Progressive neighborhood organization Jamaica Plain Progressives held a “community conversation” Monday night to address these complex questions, inviting policymakers, activists and housing researchers to speak at the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain.

“Why is it that in a city that built housing for the working class, all of a sudden that housing is not available to working class families?” panelist Barry Bluestone, founding director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, asked the audience.

“Our housing market is being treated like the new Wall Street, instead of the main street that it is,” City Councilor Lydia Edwards said.

More than 100 members of the greater Boston community packed the church hall for the panel featuring Bluestone, Edwards and and two other representatives from across the city: Preservation of Affordable Housing Development Associate Nathalie Janson and City Life Executive Director Lisa Owens.

The panelists focused particularly on Mayor Marty Walsh’s newest strategy to face the city’s housing crunch: an increase of 69,000 new housing units by 2030 – with the goal of just under 16,000 of those set at rents affordable to low-income families.

Most of the panelists expressed doubts on the mayor’s initiative. “We cannot build our way out of this housing crisis,” Edwards said. “Because housing is segmented. You cannot build luxury apartments and that is somehow going to help make affordable housing – the two don’t talk to each other.”

This is because the market itself was not created to fix the issues that segregate housing: racism, classism, and unlivable wages, Edwards said. Instead, she encouraged the audience to look to her district in East Boston as a case study in affordable housing.

Suffolk Downs, the largest development in Boston history, presents more than 160 acres of opportunity in between Revere and East Boston to build nearly 10,000 affordable units, according to Edwards.

“This could be one of the greatest opportunities to take all the lessons we’ve learned about classism, about racism, about proper zoning, about planning for a true community, that’s reflective of the diversity and class that we need,” Edwards said. “Or we can do what we have already done and create another Seaport.”

To get there, the city must plan from the perspective of low-income and middle class families in the area – not from the perspective of the wealthy, she said. Edwards also suggested that Boston implement civil rights within the zoning codes, and add a mandate to the housing code that would promise to address segregative housing patterns.

Janson opened her discussion by defining affordable housing: housing with income eligibility requirements and long-term use and rent restrictions. 43% of households in Boston today, however, are rent burdened – meaning families that pay more than 30% of their income on rent, she said. And as income inequality increases, preservation of affordable housing must be made a priority, she said.

Janson also discredited the idea of trickle down economics in the housing market, arguing that “streamlining luxury housing in working class communities of color is not progressive.” Instead, there are two things the city must achieve for its citizens: better renters rights and more resources from state and city governance to protect affordable housing, she said.

Owens spoke on the relationship between the high rates of rent burdens and communities of color in Boston. In a city where 43% of its citizens make $50,000 a year or less, only families that make nearly $70,000 can afford a two bedroom apartment without being rent burdened, she said. These rent burdened families are making daily choices between child care, food and housing, she said.

In neighborhoods like Roxbury and JP, where the majority of families live in rental housing, these issues are particularly relevant to communities of color, according to Owens. The solution is tenant organizing, she said: “to fight to stay in your home right now, against these big developers who are treating housing as a profit center – not as a human right.”

But those in charge of Boston’s housing decisions are not the ones directly impacted by these issues, according to Owens.“And we think that is wrong,” she said.

To Bluestone, the displacement of working class families lies in one of Boston’s greatest successes: the city’s abundance of young professionals and graduates. In taking over the housing stock originally created for immigrant and low-income families, particularly triple decker homes, young people are driving up the rental costs and pushing working class families out of the city.

To combat this, Bluestone suggested the implementation of what he called “21st century villages,” or dormitory-styled units for millenial singles and couples, to free up the triple-decker housing for low-income families that need it.

But Marwa Sayed, a recent Boston University graduate and resident of Jamaica Plain, said she wasn’t so convinced. “The solution he’s proposing obscures the actual issue,” Sayed said. “He’s talking about the shortage of housing, without talking about the fact that people make profit off housing itself, instead of just making it a place to live. Creating dorms for people is not really the solution.”

Sayed’s comment was just one of a few points of contention between panelists and audience members. Somerville resident Cherai Mills, however, said she loved this type of honesty.

“Because that’s what we need,” Mills said. “People striving for the same end goal, but also having their own thoughts and criticisms on things, to strengthen affordable housing as a whole because it is a crisis.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” Mills continued. “But I’m glad so many people showed up, because it is important.”

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