Walsh meets with Dot housing activists, seeks a partnership on goals

Mayor Martin Walsh addressed a room filled with anti-displacement, pro-affordable housing activists in Fields Corner last week. At left, one of the Dorchester Not For Sale (DN4S) organizers Lori Hurlebaus listens. Photo courtesy DN4S

Lofty goals for setting affordable housing requirements and limiting displacement in the Glover’s Corner planning area are admirable, Mayor Martin Walsh told activists during a community dinner last week, but impractical unless there are new channels of funding or other creative economic solutions first.

Dorchester Not For Sale (DN4S) is an anti-displacement, pro-affordable housing coalition that formed around the city’s planning study for Glover’s Corner. At their monthly dinner in VietAID’s Fields Corner headquarters, they pressed the mayor and his housing chief, Sheila Dillon, to make commitments to zero displacement and high percentages of housing that would be affordable to those who live in the area.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone who’s struggling to stay here now,” said Lori Hurlebaus in kicking off the meeting. The group’s goals, she said, include “no displacement,” maintaining “community enclaves,” and “centering people most at risk of displacement.”

Just as the attendees asked the mayor to hear them out, he asked that they actively participate in the planning process rather than just make demands of the city.

“Of course, we’re gonna keep working, but I’m asking you, just for a second, you should work with us to come to sitting at the table, to understand, so we can help you with the information so the information is in front of you and you have it,” Walsh said. “I think we could do something special here.”

After going through a presentation on neighborhood demographic data, which was broadly accurate, and sharing stories of displacement and housing insecurity, the group moved on to its priorities.

“We demand that 65 percent of total new housing is truly affordable to meet community needs and incomes,” said Angelina Hua of the Asian American Research Workshop, reading from a presentation slide. They also asked the mayor to commit to “zero displacement” in the area.

Dorchester has among the highest foreclosure rates in the city, according to Department of Neighborhood Development analysis, and the vast majority of people living in the study impact area and making less than $50,000 annually are people of color. DN4S advocates say the economic conditions in the area put about half of the residents “at risk of displacement.”

Walsh said he could not commit to the demands in yes or no form, because of the practical limitations. “Sixty-five percent affordable — a great goal, a brilliant goal,” he said. “Tell me how to do it, because we don’t have a federal housing partner. We don’t have federal money coming into the city of Boston. The city, we have a bond bill, $1.8 billion. That’s not cash.”

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He later added, “The answer is yes, but the reality isn’t yes. This is where honest conversations have to happen. We’d like to say zero displacement, but there’s no way any person can commit to that. I can’t commit to 65 percent affordable, because how do you get there?”

DN4S and other similar groups take issue with the calculations to determine affordable housing, which are federal metrics based on area median income in a wide swath of Greater Boston and not necessarily reflective of the Dorchester neighborhood income range.

“To keep people here and preserve the neighborhood, we have to use the incomes of people who are here now,” Hua read. She also listed demands that the city collect more money from developers for affordable housing, mandate that they create more affordable housing in general, help non-profits buy land for “the community good,” and “use city-owned land for affordable housing and not just selling it to developers.”

Public land in areas like Glover’s Corner should be used to build “deeply affordable” housing, the group said. They also want the city to expand the planning area to include “impact areas” stretching out into Bowdoin-Geneva and other communities predominantly of color that could be hit by a downside ripple effect on housing prices.

“The Glover’s Corner planning process is a process of planning. We don’t have a development there,” Walsh said. “We control one piece of land there, and that’s the Campbell Resource Center, and if we sold that or used that for property, we would have to move our school facilities somewhere else.

He continued: “Also we have our school buses on the land over there, so if we displace them we have to figure out where they go. It’s a planning process. Not everyone in the room might agree with that, but it’s a conversation about a plan moving forward.”

Studies in South Boston and Jamaica Plain/Roxbury offer some lessons into Glover’s Corner as the process wraps up, the mayor said.

“Jamaica Plain’s plan, which went sideways as we were having conversations, was all about housing and creating opportunity,” Walsh said. The crisis of condo conversions in that area led some more strident activists to demand 70 percent affordable housing, while the plan’s advocates pushed for 18 percent, and it landed around 30 percent.

“Since we did that, I don’t think any development has moved forward, because when you talk about 30, 40 percent affordable rate, we need to talk about how we’re going to pay for that,” Walsh said.

City housing officials have said they expect to reassess the Inclusionary Development Policy, which sets standards for affordable housing construction, in the next few years. Walsh noted existing partnerships like the one in Uphams Corner with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative to buy property through the group’s land trust.

As to city land, the mayor noted, “We’ve sold one piece of land in the city since I became mayor,” he said, “The Winthrop Square Garage in downtown Boston.” Proceeds from the sale, he said, will include $25 million for Old Colony, $10 million to Orient Heights, and $25 million to improve Boston Common and Franklin Park, Walsh said.

One Cape Verdean man, through a translator, wished Walsh a pleasant trip to his country the next morning.

He said he came to Dorchester because “he always had opportunities,” and he could send money back to his family in Cape Verde, according to the translator. He asked that the mayor support the residents who already populate the area, even as he was encouraged that new people wished to move in.

“Be with us and we will be with you,” he told Walsh. “We want to welcome the people. We don’t want to leave for them to come in; we want to be there to receive them and show them around.”

The project sitting in the middle of the Glover’s planning area, what Mimi Ramos called “the monster in the room,” is Dot Block. Set to take up roughly 4 acres between the bounds of Dorchester Avenue and Hancock, Greenmount, and Pleasant streets, the revised Dot Block plan includes an underground parking structure, 488 rental units of which 66 are designated affordable, and 1.34 acres of green space.

The project’s comment period— managed by the BPDA— has been extended to March 11 to allow time for a second public meeting scheduled for March 6.

Last week’s meeting was civil, and members like Ramos thanked the mayor from running through policies the city is already engaged in and is currently pursuing.

“Many of the policies you brought up are policies that we’re also fighting for, that the backing of the community voice is what helped move those policies forward,” she said.

Walsh highlighted the Community Preservation Act as a funding source for new affordable housing as well.

“There’s so many and we really truly look at not only the victories around these issues but what it took to get there, what it took with community education, community leadership, to really drive the agenda” Ramos said. “We’re excited that the city is starting to shift, but we also know we can do more.”

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