Walk up Washington Street in Jamaica Plain and you’ll see a vivid portrait of a city in flux.
On a corner near Forest Hills, young families and couples line up outside the Third Cliff Bakery and Cafe, a year-old coffee shop in a condo building that boasts a concierge and pet spa.
Farther up the street toward Egleston Square, tenants rally with their neighbors to protest eviction proceedings and rent increases by their landlord.
The next mayor will have to govern all of this, trying to steer Boston through a housing crisis that increasingly splits the city’s haves and have-nots. Everyone pretty much agrees that housing in Boston is too pricey and too scarce, but there is little consensus on what, exactly, to do about it.
This debate has raged across the city for years, but perhaps nowhere with greater intensity than the neighborhood along Washington Street, home to many of the 1,100 new units built in Jamaica Plain in the last few years. There, two sides of the issue are in plain view: Enormous new apartment buildings replace auto shops and warehouses, while a local brewery has twice sued to halt new affordable housing next door.
Meanwhile, the inexorable rise of home prices, often spurred at least in part by the introduction of upscale buildings nearby, continues to chip away at what affordable housing still exists.
“We’re trying to stay in our neighborhood. We’re waiting for a miracle to happen, so we don’t have to move away,” said Rita Paul, a longtime tenant who is facing eviction from her building near Egleston Square, through a Spanish translator.
The politics of street-level development don’t always break along neat political lines. So when voters say in poll after poll that housing is their top priority on Election Day, they sometimes mean quite different things.
The Boston mayoral candidates’ proposals on housing:
Informed by a rich history of progressive activism, residents in the corner of the city where Jamaica Plain abuts Roxbury may be more inclined to back new development than in some parts of Greater Boston. But the public process is such that even a handful of dissenters can stall a project. And although opponents don’t always prevail, their objections, as well as the usual back-and-forth from hyper-engaged residents in the review process, often slows things down or forces developers to scale back.
Some of the residents who most resist more development in Jamaica Plain, observers note, are longtime homeowners who moved into a very different neighborhood. In the late 1980s, single-family homes in Jamaica Plain sold for an average of $166,500 (roughly $400,000 in today’s dollars), according to The Warren Group. Today the typical single-family home there goes for just under $1 million.
Many of those original buyers were “hippie liberals,” said Lee Goodman, who grew up in Jamaica Plain, works as a developer, and counts his parents among that crowd.
“Now they’re all millionaires. They don’t want to acknowledge that,” said Goodman, 38, who is redeveloping the site of the shuttered Doyle’s Cafe. “Those are the first people you see on a Zoom call saying, ‘How dare you build in this neighborhood? They’re displacing everyone!’ It’s like, no — you did that.”
Since 1990, the streets around Boston English High School and the old Doyle’s bar have become whiter (now 54 percent white), while the share of Latino and Black residents has fallen, according to an analysis of census data by the Washington Post.
Around there, the essence of the neighborhood and what it means to preserve it is hotly debated. Is it a place where people should be able to buy single-family homes for a reasonable price and watch their values grow, as Goodman’s parents did? Should it remain a “little Dominican Republic,” with Latino-owned shops filling the storefronts, as Alex Ponte-Capellan remembers from his childhood in the late 1990s? What about newcomers who want to raise families in a lively, dense neighborhood close to transit?
“I don’t think that’s a bad thing: A denser neighborhood is a more walkable neighborhood; a denser neighborhood is a greener one,” said Zack DeClerck, who moved there in 2015.
DeClerck, who works at a nonprofit focused on global health, said his extended family in other parts of the country couldn’t believe what he paid to buy one floor of a three-decker, where he lives with his wife and two children. It was a stretch for them.
“We had a little bit of family help that helped us with the down payment,” said DeClerck, 29. “If we waited another year, we would have been priced out of JP. We barely squeaked in.”
Closer to Egleston Square, Paul and some of her neighbors aren’t much interested in condo prices; they want the next mayor to help them stay in their rental apartments on Abbotsford Street.
Paul, 60, works nights as a cleaner and days as a home health aide for the elderly. She feels caught in an untenable bind, living in the neighborhood that has been home for 15 years: She earns too much to qualify for a subsidized apartment but can’t afford to give up income because she won’t be able to pay the rent that keeps going up. And she doesn’t want to leave Egleston Square, even for cheaper rents in another part of town.
“It’s not only my neighborhood,” she said. “That’s my family.”
Paul wants to see a cap on rent hikes, and hopes the next mayor will strengthen the building inspection system so landlords can’t rent apartments that are infested with roaches and mice, as she says hers is.
A fellow tenant, Maria, 48, is also facing eviction for being behind on rent. But she is undocumented, which makes her situation particularly precarious. She believes the next mayor should especially provide support to undocumented immigrants, who are vulnerable to intimidation by landlords who want to circumvent the formal eviction process. Both Maria and Paul are working with the tenants’ rights group City Life/Vida Urbana, long based in Jamaica Plain, to stay in their homes.
Some housing activists and developers say the solution is simple: Build, build, build.
And that’s largely what the city has tried to do. A plan adopted by the Boston Planning and Development Agency in 2017 called for roughly 2,500 new apartments and condos — on top of 1,300 already permitted — in the 250 acres along Washington Street. The city decreed that 36 percent of new units must be income-restricted affordable housing, almost triple the 13 percent required across the city.
Four years later, that plan is resulting in actual homes, with 769 units built, under construction, or approved, according to the city.
But much of the future affordable housing is aimed for the Arborway bus yards, near Forest Hills, which the MBTA promised about 20 years ago to close. Progress has been slow. The next mayor should sit down with the MBTA and make it happen, said Giovanny Valencia, community organizing director at Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp., a nonprofit housing developer.
Those eight acres could make a big difference, Valencia said. A recent JPNDC project received 3,500 applications for 44 units.
“Just imagine what happens if we don’t build more housing,” Valencia said. “Every single house will be a million dollars in a few years. Who will be able to live in Boston?”
The soaring costs influence many aspects of daily life in the area. For instance, many artists used to live in the area because of cheap rents, said Jay Balerna, the longtime owner of Midway Cafe on Washington Street. That was great for a local dive bar, because musicians could drop in to play shows. But with rents on one-bedroom apartments pushing $2,000 a month, artists are moving away.
Peter Janis, whose family has owned the car wash and laundromat at Washington and Rossmore Road for 40 years, has seen a similar dynamic among his customers. They used to live in three-deckers nearby and walk to the laundromat. Now many of those three-deckers are renovated condos with their own washers and dryers. His customers and employees drive in from Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, Janis said.
That, in turn, contributes to the traffic that typically jams Washington Street, which increases pollution and makes the street unpleasant for both residents and drivers, a common point of objection to new housing in the area.
Ultimately, the next mayor must figure out how to make housing work for all the people who have a stake on Washington Street and in the city: tenants and landlords, old-timers, and newcomers, those who want unfettered growth and those who fear that displacement will follow. Even as Election Day approaches, more projects are popping up.
But who will live in the area, and what sort of neighborhood they will inhabit, remains an open question.