Monthly Archives: April 2015

SEEN FROM THE HILL : HOW SHOULD ROXBURY ADDRESS REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT ? COLUMNIST RODNEY SINGLETON and DEVELOPER DAVID PRICE SPEAK OUT

David Price:

“Nuestra Comunidad seconds the call for representative community bodies with substantial review powers. Legitimacy through elections would be welcome. One over-looked issue is how poorly review committees, appointed or elected, have represented the community. Specifically, tenants represent the majority of Roxbury, and every other Boston neighborhood, but are almost always under-represented and sometimes un-represented on project review committees. The result is that homeowners dominate these committees. For better or worse, some homeowners in recent years, looking to bolster property values, have opposed affordable housing and called for 100% market rate development. It’s now crystal clear that such calls feed the escalating real estate market in Roxbury now resulting in gentrification and displacement. Tenants would not be inclined make this catastrophic error. Tenants are on the front line of gentrification and displacement.

“Also, tenants know through their lived experience that stable affordable housing is a platform for success for families. It allows for financial planning and savings. Nuestra’s experience is that every year, families leave our housing to buy a home. That is the reality of affordable rental housing, a reality that tenants understand first hand and that homeowners often mis-understand based on second-hand information.

“Let’s ask the BRA and DND to create a tenant representation policy so that project review committees truly represent the majority of Roxbury.

— David Price

Reply by Rodney Singleton:

“No doubt everybody in Roxbury welcomes a diverse community body with substantial review power.

“But review committees don’t fail or represent their constituency poorly because they lack an adequate voice from renters! Quite the contrary, homeowners that serve on these boards were once renters and renters also serve. Homeowners don’t dominate these review committees at all. Homeowners and renters have equal skin in the game!

“It’s also clear why tenants represent the majority of Roxbury households: corporate landlords like Nuestra CDC, City Realty and other CDCs perpetuate the tenant culture in Roxbury. And why not, it serves their needs! A portfolio of property ownership and management is lucrative, even if it is on the backs of the struggling and poor!

“For better or worse, some homeowners in recent years, looking to bolster property values, have opposed affordable housing and called for 100% market rate development.” Boy if that’s not pot calling the kettle black! Aren’t CDCs, corporate land/home owners, bolstering their own position as landlords by de-basing the legitimate voice of Roxbury homeowners and expanding their own interests of the tenant culture in Roxbury?

“Average homeowners in Roxbury are far from being corporate entities and by all accounts aren’t calling for 100% market-rate housing! We do acknowledge a skewed concentration of affordable housing in Roxbury that has left a dearth of workforce housing in the middle, where families cannot qualify for subsidized housing, or afford market-rate housing and find few options. Homeowners have advocated this imbalance in housing be more balanced to accommodate more struggling families squeezed in the middle.

“As tenants become homeowners, homeowners realize the best hedge against gentrification is to own the ground you wish to hold!

“In Roxbury, homeowners don’t bolster their property values! It’s more a question of quality of life because it’s home. By the way, renters seek that same quality of life. In fact, it’s pretty certain this is not unique to Roxbury. Pretty sure the idea of home is common in places like Milton, Wellesley, Weston, Needham and 347 other cities and towns across the state. There’s no lack of understanding on the part of homeowners when it comes to renters, we all call it home!

“Homeowners and renters advocating for a better quality of life in their own neighborhood does not feed an escalating real estate market in Roxbury to the point of gentrification and displacement.

“The riots in Baltimore remind us of the root causes of marginalization and gentrification/displacement when your neighborhood suddenly becomes popular: poor schools and lack of training options, lack of access to good jobs, and lack of access to business opportunities.

“If community development corporations like Nuestra CDC are really interested in fighting gentrification and displacement, perhaps they should divest their real estate holdings and invest in education, access to jobs and access business opportunities?

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— Rodney Singleton / Seen From the Hill

POOR PLANNING AT MELNEA CASS BOULEVARD

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^ (L) Patrrick Hoey of Boston Transportation (R) Melnea Cass, Boston Republican powerhouse and civil rights leader

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Last night I attended a meeting of the planning group working on renovation of Melnea Cass Boulevard. The invitation came from Madison Park Development Corporation (MPDC), which oversees the creation of newness for the neighborhood that Cass Boulevard passes through, but it is the City, not the MPDC, that has charge of rebuilding the road.

At the meeting I learned that that is and was a mistake.

Many people attended, many of them spoke. State Representatives Rushing and Fox were present,as was Councillor Jackson. I applaud their diligence; both Rushing and Fox have been at this as long as I have ! The attendance of all is a good thing, and I do not fault any of those who came or those who spoke for the failures I see in the project, which is now well along in its process of design and review, review and design.

The failure is the project itself.

First of all, why do we even need it at all ? I drive Cass Boulevard every day. It executes its mission well, which is to swi9ft commercial traffic from the I-93 Massachusetts Avenue exit across the entire neighborhood of avenues and streets overt to the Roxbury Crossing, Tremont Street side of the City thence off to “JP,” Rozzie, and points South. The boulevard — named after a heroine of Boston politics Melnea Cass, who back in the day shjepherded a young Roxbury resident, Ed Brooke, all the way to the US Senate — is of functional design. It isn’t a sightseer’s route. It has a job to do, and it does it. Nor is the road in disrepair, or poorly lit. If roads can be described as fit, Cass Boulevard is fit, very fit.

So what’s the point ? Why does the City need to spend $ 9,000,000 — plus additional Federal millions — to fix what isn’t broken ?

The result of this unneeded project is that the Lower Roxbury community now has its chance to change the function of Cass Boulevard; to narrow it and add grass-way in the center strip, to add bike lanes, to render Cass Boulevard basically a neighborhood street rather than a flow-through parkway. Again : I do not blame the residents of Lower Roxbury for using the opportunity handed to them. Cass Boulevard does indeed cut a very noisy, busy, high-traffic swath through a neighborhood almost entirely residential. It is not simple to walk across the boulevard from the Roxbury side to the South End side. Cass Boulevard has, actually, become a sort of barrier : to its north, gentrification and very high pr8ice homes; to its south, long-term neighbo0rs and homes less than half as pricey. There also used to be  racial break : Caucasian to the north, people of color to the south., That is changing, rapidly so.

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^ the plan priorities ; the residents attending

Curiously — and I doubt that the Lower Roxbury group sees this — remaking Cass Boulevard as a neighybo9rhood street, wider than most, maybe, but no longer a purely functional swath, will abet the transformation of Lower Roxbury by eliminating the barrier effect. The streets between Northampton on the north and Dudley Square on the south,m will now be one neighborhood, and house prices will rise quickly throughout, as the market power and style cachet of the South End engulfs streets like Williams, Ruggles, and Shawmut, and all of Madison Park itself.

Perhaps the residents do in fact see this and are waiting for the price to reach their I-will-sell mark. That, of course, is something residents at meetings never ever say. But I digress….

The redesigned boulevard, as shown by comments at the meeting, begets all manner of contradictions. Boston Transportation’s Patrick Hoey who chaired the meet8ing, insisted that “the traffic flow must be maintained, that is our first priority.” (The traffic flow figu7re cited was 46,300 vehicles a day.) But how ? If the boulevard is to be narrowed, how ? Suggestions were made, including by me, that we put the boulevard underground, as we did with the Central Expressway. Doing this would make Lower Roxbury entirely whole, without compromise for 46,300 vehicles a day., But Representative Rushing said that his South End neigvhbo9rthood tri9ed it and it doesn’t work, and he gave examples — not complete germaine, but enough to deflect the suggestion. Other people suggested footbridges; they too were argued against by people who talked of footbridges elsewhere that “nobody uses, so they get taken down.”

The redesign meetings go on. My feeling is that they will result in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, to nobody;’s real satisfaction,and that a perfectly good crossway will become something imperfect to everyone’s needs. That to me is not a good way to spend $ 16,500,000 of taxpayer money.

—- Mike Freedberg / Roxbury Here

ROXBURY HERE : INTO THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING CONUND

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^ Councillors Tito Jackson, frank aker (chairman), Matt O’Malley and Josh Zakim heard testimony on the City’s 40,000-unit affordable housing initiative. In the gallery, City Life activists in yellow T-shirts.

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Yesterday the City Council’s subcommittee on Housing heard from several witnesses at “Part 2” of its foray into Boston’s most difficult contradiction : the need for “affordable” housing and how to make it happen. I put “affordable” in quote marks because interested parties cannot even agree, out loud, on what constitutes affordability.

Actually, we all know what is meant when advocates say “affordable.’ They mean housing that people earning smallish incomes — how small ? smaller, I guess, than the incomes of Boston’s “new” people — can pay for. Ad here begins the contraction inherent : because by “affordable,’ advocates mean housing that costs less than the current market accepts. Thus, housing paid for at least in part by some form of taxpayer subsidy. In other words, housing that is at least in part, public housing.

The contradictions do not end there. The advocates for “affordable” housing — and there were hundreds at the Council hearing — don’t want tenancies, they want ownership. They want housing with all the normal amenities — who doesn’t ? But how to do that ? how to give those who want “affordable” housing homes that they don’t fully have to pay for ?

To put it differently, who will pay the difference between what advocates are willing to pay and the actual price of said housing ?

Many methods of providing such housing were profferred at the hearing, some wiser, some quite unwise, some superficially nice but with deadly consequences. All amount to public housing. One suggestion — the “community” land trust — resembles the mobile home park concept. All involve a huge transfer of market pricing from those who can pay it to those who can’t.

Many of the suggestions entail huge hurt. How, for example, do we explain to the elderly Roxbury homeowner who, never having had much money in his or her life, now finds that his or her home — probably without a mortgage — is worth a million dollars, or more and that he or she can cash that million out to a “gentrification” buyer, that his or her house is now worth less because the neighborhood has been targeted for vast tracks of subsidized “affordable” housing ?

Or, to cite another example, the so-called “just cause” eviction law that advocates want, how do we tell the owner of rental housing that since a buyer who can’t evict the tenants isn’t likely to buy at all, that his hitherto very valuable real estate is now worth much, much less ? Real estate whose taxes he has paid and whose repairs and maintenance he has made, maybe at great cost ?

As for the “Community” Land Trust concept : is there really a market for buying homes that do not own the land they are built on, where resale prices are restricted — despite a booming market — by the trust instrument and where the actual land — now likely worth much more than the homes built on it — is owned by the trust’s beneficiaries and can be sold out from under, by a vote of those beneficiaries, at any time ?

If we are going to advance home ownership for those with smallish incomes, how dare we promote this sort of shell game ? Let the homeowner own the land on which his or her house is built !

The Council’s hearings on “affordable housing will continue. So will the discussion, of evictions and market rents, lottery-win house prices, “gentrification” and “displacement.” We have heard ot all before. We heard it in the 1970s, when Roxbury housing was cheaper than cheap (minne was $ 35 a month, on Fort Avenue, no less), if you were willing to live in unrenovated flats with hospital-green walls, where electric lightbulbs dangled flammably from the ceiling; with only a gas stove to heat the bedroom; with door locks easily jimmy’d — in a neighborhood rife with all manner of crime : twice I had my car stolen.

We heard it in the 1980s, when the first housing boom arrived and, with mortgages now available — early in the 1970s Roxbury was “red-lined” except by John Bynoe’s Progressive Credit Union– everyone who could sell, sold.

We hear it now.

Rioxbury housing is no longer cheap. Most of it is no longer “affordable.”‘ there is much “gentrification” — the term used to mask simple racism : where are all these white-ies coming tom ? There is also displacement, because, yes, many Roxbury residents cannot afford the $ 2,200 to $ 4,200 rents now found in 02119 zip code postings at zillow.com and trulia.com. ut in Roxbury today there is also much renovation of homes, some new home building, and — thanks, let’s admit, to the greater political and economic power that well off Whites command — vastly more clout for all of our community at City Hall.

Roxbury might even now be able to absorb the money transfer cost of subsidizing liveable below-market housing for many residents, without creating a Stigma Block or a mobile home park, without imposing hard-to-evict rules on landlords, without losing the market boom that has brought a bonanza to long-term home owners and thus made Roxbury a dynamic, innovating place in which many businesses now rush to locate.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere