Boston developers are used to battling their way toward groundbreaking ceremonies. There are few real estate deals in town that don’t come loaded with some form of bloodsport, whether it’s the dust-ups over building heights downtown, the brutal parking conflagrations found on every block in South Boston, or something more amorphous, like the toxic identity politics that have dogged new housing construction in Jamaica Plain. These battles pop up frequently enough that they’ve taken on the feel of a ritual dance. The contours of the conflicts feel familiar, even as the address of the field of battle shifts.
At the end of the Red Line in Dorchester, Trinity Financial is staring at a far less familiar type of confrontation. Trinity’s bid to turn a scruffy Dorchester Avenue garage into a new mixed-income housing complex is loaded with guts and drama, but the battle isn’t about building permits. Trinity is picking a fight with the economics of Boston’s dysfunctional housing market.
The developer is trying to replace an industrial parcel outside Peabody Square with dozens of homes built for average people of average means. This shouldn’t be a remarkable endeavor, but in Boston, it is. Other developers haven’t figured out how to finance moderately priced homes in any meaningful volume. And this failure is pricing the city’s middle class out of existence.
Trinity wants to raze Ashmont Tire, an automotive shop sitting across the street from the Ashmont Red Line station, and replace it with 81 housing units. This type of development — on the T, in a neighborhood outside of downtown, replacing a storefront that could go anywhere in Massachusetts with a building that works only when it’s near a rail line — doesn’t happen as often as it should. Still, the project isn’t unique. It follows the lead of the Carruth, a six-story housing project that Trinity built across Dorchester Avenue, also next to Ashmont Station.
The Carruth and the Ashmont Tire proposal are scaled similarly — five stories of housing over a ground floor of retail storefronts. They both mix subsidized affordable housing units with market-rate homes. They’re both selling the prospect of a quick commute downtown to new residents, and using those new residents to attract retailers who deepen the vitality of the surrounding neighborhood. They’re the types of buildings that should be surrounding T stations across Boston.
Right now in Boston, there’s an enormous amount of money to be made building luxury homes. There’s also a finite, but steady, pool of money that developers tap to build subsidized housing for lower-income residents. The space in between is where the broad middle class dwells, and these days, it’s difficult to make the math work on new middle-class housing.
Trinity’s new Ashmont project is slated to contain dozens of market-rate condominiums aimed at this forgotten middle. They would sell at a fraction of the price luxury units are now going for downtown. The Trinity project pulls this off by flipping the development’s internal economics upside-down.
Most Boston developments tap market-rate rents to create subsidies for affordable units. Trinity’s Ashmont project leads with subsidized affordable units, which carry the costs of getting the building off the ground. By shouldering construction costs, these affordable units help pay for reasonably priced market-rate condos; the market-rate units cost a fraction of what they would cost to build from scratch on another site, and because they cost less, they don’t have to sell to high-end buyers.
“There’s a dearth of housing that’s not at either end of the income spectrum, and it’s a real problem,” Trinity’s Kenan Bigby says. “We hope this type of model can go a long way to filling the gap.”Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.