Gentrification Anxiety: JP Residents Demand More Affordable units in New Housing

Earlier this year, activists swarmed Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s office and called for more affordable housing to be included in Plan JP/Rox.

What attracted Susan Prager and her husband to Egleston Square nearly 30 years ago? The affordability of a single-family home and the diversity of the residents living in the area. Now, this section of Jamaica Plain is undergoing new, large-scale housing development. This is welcomed by many in the community, but it makes Prager nervous.

Jamaica Plain is a diverse residential neighborhood southwest of downtown Boston nestled between the town of Brookline and Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. It’s commuter friendly with four MBTA Orange Line stations and several bus routes, and it features ample green space. The population of Jamaica Plain is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, income and age. Many artists and young families also live there. Egleston Square is on the Roxbury side of Jamaica Plain and has a vibrant Hispanic, largely Dominican population.

Even before Prager moved in, Jamaica Plain had been gentrifying. However, gentrification seems to have sped up in the past decade. According to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, rent in Jamaica Plain has increased by 15-percent between 2014 and 2016, and by 22-percent in Roxbury during the same time. In addition, within Egleston Square and the immediate surrounding areas, 72-percent of residents who spend at least one-third of their income for housing make below $50,000 a year. As the neighborhood changes, these people are at risk of being displaced.

“There will be change. I do not know if it is a concern as much as it is a reality, an expected reality. The question is, the real issue is, to know it will happen and see how best to have it happen,” said Luis Cotto, executive director of the Egleston Square Main Streets, an organization of merchants, residents and community groups who promote Egleston Square’s commercial district.

Tim Reardon, who’s lived on Mozart Street in Egleston Square for 17 years, believes the best way to stabilize housing costs is for supply to meet demand. To achieve this, Reardon would like to see taller, more dense buildings being built.

“Until there is sufficient supply, that we get to some kind of healthy vacancy rate, because landlords know they can keep raising the rents because there are more and more people that want those units,” said Reardon, who is also a Egleston Square Main Streets board member.

By 2030, city officials anticipate Boston’s population to increase by about 100,000 people, and they’re calling for 53,000 new housing units to be built by then. Over the past several years, the city has approved one-off building projects on Washington Street, which leads from Egleston Square to Forest Hills. Over two and a half years ago, Prager, Reardon and other community advocates called for the city to create a comprehensive development plan for the area.

“The neighborhood asked the city to do a plan because there was already development pressure, and what was happening was they were responding to individual projects without having an idea of what the neighborhood would be,” said Pranger, Egleston Square Main Streets board member and co-founder of her street’s neighborhood association, the Chilcott Place–Granada Park Neighborhood Association.

In March 2017, after 50 community meetings, the city unveiled PLAN: JP/ROX. This plans sets development and zoning guidelines for 250 acres between Jackson Square, Egleston Square and Forest Hills, bounded by Washington Street, Columbus Avenue and Amory Street. With over 6,000 residents currently living in this area, the new plan calls for re-zoning to allow for greater housing density, which could yield over 3,700 new housing units, both for rental and for sale.

During the plan’s formation, Dan Thomas, Prager’s husband, served on the plan’s community advisory group. Even with his involvement, Thomas and Prager are still concerned that new units deemed affordable will not actually be affordable for the low-income people currently living in the neighborhood.

The plan calls for 40-percent of new units to be affordable according to a percentage of the average median income, which is set regionally by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
For the Boston metropolitan region, the average median income is just over $100,000, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household income for all of Jamaica Plain is $76,968. However, households within the plan’s range have an average income of just over $50,000.

Minority residents are at greater risk. The city acknowledges that of the households with incomes less than $50,000, 81 percent are of people of color.

At the March 2 Boston Planning and Development Agency meeting where PLAN: JP/ROX was approved, City Councilor Tito Jackson voiced concern about affordability. Part of District 7, which Jackson represents, falls within the JP/ROX plan.

Housing advocates who shared Jackson’s concern about the lack of affordable housing in the area met with Mayor Marty Walsh’s office prior to the meeting, and eight stayed behind and staged a sit-in after security guards tried to clear the room after an hour of debate.
One demand made by housing advocates was that amount of affordable units in the JP/Rox development to increase to 25-percent, up from the currently proposed 19-percent.

“You say it’s an affordable unit, but you know based on your own numbers that people in that neighborhood and community can’t actually live in that neighborhood and community in affordable units,” said Jackson, who is challenging incumbent Martin J. Walsh in the upcoming mayoral election. “When it comes down to it, you have an opportunity in this red-hot market to do better for our neighborhoods, to do better for the people who love Boston.”

Jackson could not be reached for further comment.

In addition to affordable units, Prager and Thomas want new buildings to preserve certain setbacks from the street and to be limited in terms of height to ensure they would fit in with existing single-family and multifamily triple-decker architecture, a common New England housing structure. Dan is concerned that an increased new density will alter the “family neighborhood that it is.”

Prager and Thomas’ home is on Chilcott Place, which is a quiet street where they know their neighbors by name. At the top of their road, where it intersects with Granada Park, Prager and her neighbors established a community garden on the plot of house that had burned down and lay vacant for over 20 years. At the bottom of their road is Washington Street, an active commercial center with restaurants, bodegas and barbershops.

A prime example of their overall development concern is a six-story, 76-unit building that has already broken ground around the corner from their home at 3200 Washington St. The project is planned to open in the fall on the former sites of Economy Plumbing and Heating Supply Co. and E & J Auto Center, an automotive glass repair shop.

According to a July 25 press release from 3200 Washington’s developer, Berkley Investments, 73 of the units will be rentals, ranging from 450 square feet to 1,300 square feet, with rent ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 per month. Nine of the units will be affordable for households at 70 percent and 100 percent of area median income.
Three additional condominium units will be built in a separate triple-decker on the site and will be sold for households at 70 percent and 100 percent of area median income. Berkley Investments did not return multiple requests for comment.

“3200 [Washington] is a great project. I think we got a great deal out of it,” said Reardon. He followed up by saying, “I would have liked to have seen one more affordable unit on the site. I would have like to have seen it built a year ago.”

Reardon is not the only one in the neighborhood excited about the project.

Henry Dubin, 31, bought a triple-decker condo on Montebello Road across the street from 3200 Washington in February 2016. Dubin and his wife wanted to live in Jamaica Plain and found a home in their price point in Egleston Square.

“We always joke, metaphorically and literally, it’s the less desirable side of the tracks in JP, but we love the energy and eclecticness of the neighborhood,” Dubin said.

 

“I know the first floor [of 3200 Washington] is going to be retail, so if there’s going to be a cool restaurant or cafe, it will be awesome,” he said. “More stuff to do in the immediate vicinity.”

Solomon Lemma, 65, has owned Egleston Liquors for 17 years. He’s the co-president of Egleston Square Main Streets and is eager for more residents like Dubin.

“For business, you know, we will have new people with higher income and that will change the neighborhood,” said Lemma. “As it is, everything is expensive here. It might even help us. The more units you have, the better it is. That’s how I see it.”

And more units are coming.

According to the city’s plan, nearly 1,300 units of housing have already been approved or are under construction, and 368 of them are dedicated to some level of affordability.

“What I would like to see are a lot more projects like 3200 [Washington], major, urban scale, fairly low parking, more amenities, more tax revenue,” Reardon said. “I think there are some proposals like that, modern design, and opportunity for new folks to get in the neighborhood without displacing people from existing units.”

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens with this stretch,” Prager said while sitting on her front porch with Thomas.

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