NOT AFFORDABLE: The battle for Egleston Square

The Boston Redevelopment Authority board approved a controversial development in Jamaica Plain’s Egleston Square on Wednesday. Located at 3200 Washington Street, the mixed use development has raised concerns from local activists about affordability and displacement.

The planned development will feature ground floor retail, 76 residential units, and 40 parking spaces. While the developer, 3190 Washington Street LLC, and the BRA maintain this will resolve a “problem property” and provide affordable housing, locals and activists fear this will bring gentrification and force them out.

The two sides have been butting heads for months.

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council voted against earlier designs back in June, calling the seven story development too tall and too dense, and stating that the residential units didn’t meet the required 25 percent affordability rate. Youth activists also staged a weekend of protests—including a march and a “tent city”—demanding that the development be made completely affordable for families making $26,000 a year.

Developers adjusted their plans based on feedback received from door-to-door surveys and 20 public hearings. They scaled the project down to six stories and added more affordable housing, raising the total number to 18 units or 24 percent of the housing—which is higher than Boston’s required 13 percent. Additionally, the project will be privately funded. Most board members seemed impressed with the proposal, and some even seemed confused by the opposition.

“It’s 100 percent privately funded, doesn’t use any public subsidiaries, and goes above and beyond the city requirements for affordability—why aren’t people clapping for this?” asks board member Michael Monahan.

“Because it’s not affordable,” says one woman in the crowd.

The definition of “affordable” is another point of contention between both sides. For the BRA, affordability is based on the area median income (AMI), which is determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD defines low income as individuals making below 80 percent of the AMI—so, for a family of four in Boston, an income below $69,700 per year. The affordable units are slated for families making between 65 and 70 percent of Boston’s AMI (save one unit slated for 100 percent AMI).

However, according to City-Data.com, as of 2013 Egleston Square’s median income is $33,865, which puts most households in HUD’s very low income bracket, under 50 percent AMI.

Additionally, the other 58 units will be above the AMI.

Unsurprisingly, tensions were high at the BRA board meeting. Many of the activists weren’t able to enter the meeting room after it filled up (some developers set to testify on other projects were also shut out), which led to loud chants from outside the door, occasionally drowning out the speakers who were presenting the 3200 Washington plans. Board Chairman Timothy Burke seemed agitated by the chants at times and had little patience for audience members who spoke out. Opponents of the development were also upset to learn that there was no public hearing on the issue that evening.

Only one board member, Dr. Theodore Landsmark, voted against 3200 Washington. Opponents, many clad in white shirts that read “Keep it 100 percent for Egleston,” felt shut out of a decision that affected them.

Whether the development helps or hurts current residents remains to be seen. At any rate, Egleston is only part of the story for the young activists, many of whom have either experienced or known someone who has experienced displacement.

Gentrification and rising rents forced Modesto Sanchez from Jamaica Plain to Mattapan years ago. “The landlord decided to raise the rent just because the community looked better,” he says. The fight against 3200 Washington is a city wide fight for these activists. “If we can stop one, we can stop another one, and stop the spread of gentrification,” says Sanchez.

As rents rise in Boston, many young people raised in the city worry about the future.

“I have friends who are applying for public housing and they’re getting sent out of Boston, to Brockton,” says a young activist named Alex. To most of the young activists, many of them people of color, the city’s message seems to be “get out.”

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