The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
When Vivian Girard and his wife, Elisa, helped launch the Homestead bakery and cafe in Fields Corner in 2016, they knew from personal experience that most of their staff wouldn’t earn enough for a home of their own in Dorchester.
So they tried to do something about it.
Vivian acquired an empty lot on nearby Westville Street. Then he designed a four-story building, with 14 cozy studio apartments to rent for $650 or $850 a month, utilities included. After years of planning and permitting with the city, Girard is nearly ready to break ground. He believes there is more need than ever for such housing.
“There are so many service industry workers in this city who earn $15 to $20 an hour, if they’re lucky,” he said. “Their only option is to find a bunch of housemates and share a three- or four-bedroom. Even that’s not cheap.”
Girard’s building on Westville Street is an experiment in a different sort of affordable housing, one of a few such projects that are cropping up in Fields Corner as local developers grapple with rising demand to live in a neighborhood where the median income is 50 percent lower than the city as a whole.
Building housing that the people who live in Fields Corner can afford — without subsidies from the city or state — means trying new things. Girard’s building was one of the first in Boston approved under a “compact living” pilot program that allows developers to build smaller — if better-designed — apartments at a lower cost per unit.
Another is on Dorchester Avenue, next to the Fields Corner MBTA Red Line station, where developer Travis Lee is building a 29-unit apartment complex — also mostly studios — with no parking. That’s one of the ways he’s keeping the project’s budget to about $9 million. That, in turn, will allow him to charge rents that are affordable for middle-income tenants, maybe $1,250 a month for a studio.
That’s not exactly cheap, but Lee hopes it will meet a need for working people who don’t want a ton of space — he envisions a mix of 20-somethings and downsizers in their 60s and older — and will free up three-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood for larger families.
“This model, this rent structure, is not solving everybody’s problems,” Lee said. “It’s one piece of what has to be an overall neighborhood and city housing plan.”
And there’s potential for more of these creative approaches throughout the neighborhood.
Jenn Cartee worked for more than five years as executive director of Greater Ashmont Main Street — which works to boost small business in that neighborhood, a mile south of Fields Corner. She watched as auto shops and small factories became apartment and condominium buildings that now house hundreds of people, while directly displacing no one.
Cartee lives in Fields Corner, and when she walks up and down Dot Ave. she sees similar opportunities in what are now parking lots and one-story storefronts. Turning them into apartments — in a way that reflects the needs of the neighborhood — could ease the pressure that’s building on Field’s Corner housing stock.
“Build there, and prevent people from tearing down the old two-families on side streets,” she said. “The first time we get a six-story building will be something like a dam breaking, and I think it will be good for the health of the neighborhood.”
Girard’s building looks more like a standard triple-decker, but he’s hoping it will help the neighborhood, providing the type of housing that has proven complicated to build in Boston. He just nailed down his final permit and hopes to start work next month, which would put the building on track to open by late next year.
“We’re just trying to do small space, not luxury,” he said. “That way we can keep it quite affordable. And that’s the whole idea.”
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