Advocates stake out, sit in at City Hall over affordable housing

All photos: Alejandro Ramirez

On Tuesday night, a group of housing advocates crowded Mayor Marty Walsh’s waiting room at Boston City Hall to negotiate higher rates of affordable housing at a new development the overlaps the Jamaica Plain and Roxbury neighborhoods. It ended with a handful of activists staging a sit-in after being told to leave the room and after a discussion with John Barros.

Advocates, most of whom had to stand or sit on the floor, spoke with economic development chief John Barros around 5:15 p.m., around the same time that security guards told the crowd that City Hall was closing. Two advocates were reportedly meeting with members of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) elsewhere in City Hall that afternoon.

Advocates from Roxbury and Jamaica Plain organizations were pressuring the city to increase the rate of affordable units proposed in what’s currently called Plan JP/Rox, a multi-neighborhood zoning and development plan.

Demands included increasing the rate of affordable units at the development to 25 percent and lowering the rental prices of so-called “density bonus” units — extra affordable units developers create in exchange for permission to build more units within the same parcel. Currently the BPDA is proposing a 19 percent affordable rate. The density bonus units are currently priced for households earning 50 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), or an income of about $50,000 for a family of four. Advocates want to lower the price to 40 percent of the AMI, giving more Bostonians, especially local residents, a chance to apply for housing. They also noted half of all Boston residents only earn $35,000 per year.

Advocates also shared stories of displacement with Barros. One young man described going to school in Jamaica Plain, and then gradually getting moved out of the city due to increased rents and new landlords. His family first moved a few streets away from his original home, then to Roxbury, and finally to his current home in Mattapan. “I haven’t been able to settle down and enjoy my community,” he said.

Barros agreed with and commended certain policy points. For example, the demand to lower pricing for people making 40 percent of the AMI. “I think you’re absolutely correct on that,” Barros told the crowd. He pointed out that the AMI is set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, not the city.

Barros pushed back on the advocates’ claims that displacement and inequality were rampant in Boston. “Boston has, bar none, the largest stock of affordable housing of any city in America,” he said.

He also dismissed the Brookings Institute recent ranking of Boston as the most unequal city in the nation, saying “Boston houses its poor. If Boston wants to get off that ranking… around income inequality, we just allow the poor people to leave. I’m not saying income inequality is not something we should be looking at, but income mobility, [asking] are there opportunities for poor people on Boston — that’s a better metric.” He also noted that rent decreased citywide by four percent, though admittedly for smaller units.

He also stressed that the city has to negotiate with developers, saying no housing would be built should officials push too hard on affordability.

The advocates ran their own numbers to debate housing costs with the city. One Keep It 100 advocate, Danielle Sommer, even broke out a laptop to compare numbers with Barros, arguing that more subsidized housing was possible.

According to a press release by the Right to Remain Coalition, advocates have already made positive gains in Plan JP/Rox, including in areas of affordability. However, an action is still planned for Thursday, the day of the BPDA hearing on Plan JP/Rox to push for higher rates of affordability and easier access for lower income families.

After roughly an hour of back and forth, security guards told everyone to clear the building, saying City Hall was closed.

Eight advocates stayed behind and staged a sit-in. As of the time of this writing, they are still in city hall.

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