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paul mcmorrow

Jamaica Plain subjects real estate development to identity politics

Whole Foods is now selling groceries to the people of Jamaica Plain, howls of protest notwithstanding. The grocer’s arrival aroused fanatical opposition because it stepped into brutal neighborhood identity politics, and this toxic stew didn’t evaporate when Whole Foods cut the ribbon on its Centre Street storefront. Folks unlucky enough to step into it are still in line for bruising treatment.

A handful of housing developers are getting worked over right now. They’re getting the Whole Foods treatment, not because their projects are inherently bad, but because they won’t live up to a false, idealized notion of class and ethnic identity in Jamaica Plain. The cultural clash underpinning the Whole Foods saga, and the current housing skirmishes, isn’t about whether or not gentrification will come to Jamaica Plain; it’s about one group of residents trying to slow the pace of change in an ever-evolving neighborhood.

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Suburban towns expend enormous amounts of time and money trying to keep affordable housing outside their borders. The opposite dynamic is at play in Jamaica Plain; the housing developments running into trouble are the ones relying on market rents. Both approaches ignore the need to build housing for people on all points of the income spectrum. Jamaica Plain is now being convulsed by activists who are trying to deny housing to people who can afford to swing a few thousand dollars a month in rent payments.

The neighborhood recently turned against a redevelopment at 161 South Huntington Ave., where the Boston Residential Group wants to replace the old Home for Little Wanderers building with 196 apartments. Residents complained about high rents at the complex; one told the neighborhood paper that it would become a beacon for “transient rich people” and act as “a gateway to get a new demographic.” Housing controversies often turn on the prospect of inviting the wrong kind of people onto the block; in this case, the wrong kind of people are people who have good jobs in the Longwood Medical area.

A committee of residents vetting 161 South Huntington for the Boston Redevelopment Authority voted to oppose the project. The BRA recently approved the project, but not without reservation: BRA Director Peter Meade indicated that he wouldn’t hold up a good project over neighborhood opposition, but he said he couldn’t guarantee a positive result when the project ventures before the zoning board next month.

The 161 South Huntington project is drawing fire, in part, because it’s one of a number of somewhat upscale housing developments looking to hit Jamaica Plain around the same time. Down the block, another development group is proposing 195 luxury apartments for 105 South Huntington. Last week, developers filed plans to turn an old school near the shuttered Blessed Sacrament church into 21 loft-style apartments. The former church’s would-be redevelopers are also laying plans for 37 market-rate condominiums. All these projects are on the firing line, because all of them are aimed at market-rate customers.

The ghost of Whole Foods hangs closely over the current housing dustup. The grocer landed in the neighborhood last year, after the owner of the Hispanic market Hi-Lo Foods sold out to the upscale chain. Activists rallied, believing they could rescue Jamaica Plain from gentrification, if only they could keep the store out of the neighborhood. Of course, Whole Foods is a market-chaser, not a market-maker. Whole Foods arrived in Jamaica Plain because the store’s target customers already live in the neighborhood.

The four neighborhood housing projects currently being permitted are being hit with complaints about affordable housing, but they already have affordable components. Blessed Sacrament was approved as a campus, and so far, all 81 units that have already been built have been affordable ones. Most were built for very low income residents. Even if the former church and school go all market-rate, as proposed, the overall Blessed Sacrament redevelopment will still be 60 percent affordable.

Between them, the two South Huntington projects contain five dozen affordable units, because the city makes all developers set aside a percentage of their units for low- and moderate-income residents. This requirement is socialism, and it’s good policy: It reduces income segregation, and it creates affordable units without any public subsidy. The complaints dogging the Jamaica Plain projects aren’t really about the volume of affordable units in the development. They’re about the rents in the market-rate ones. They’re about roping off the neighborhood as off-limits to market-rate development.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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