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‘Not a fight I want to have’: Affordable housing battle in Dorchester is far from the not-in-my-backyard story

The Epiphany School in Dorchester is locked in a dispute over an affordable housing development to be built a stone’s throw from the school’s front door.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Here’s a new wrinkle on the not-in-my-backyard story — one that pits the interest of a school that serves disadvantaged kids against the need of a city desperate for affordable housing.

On one side is the tuition-free Epiphany School – whose incoming board chair will be Diane Patrick, the state’s former first lady. On the other is the Boston Planning & Development Agency and respected housing developer Trinity Financial.

The school and neighbors this month hauled BPDA director Arthur Jemison and Trinity into court with a trio of lawsuits to stop the project, which will bring 72 units of affordable housing to Dorchester. The BPDA approved the project in November, following years of heated neighborhood debate. The school and neighbors think the proposed development is way too big.

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Call it the good guys against the good guys. Which begs the question: Why can’t both sides work something out so everyone can live happily ever after?

“This is not a fight I want to have,” acknowledged the head of school, the Rev. John Finley, who dropped out of Harvard Divinity School to found Epiphany a quarter of a century ago. “If your goal is to get the housing built, you’ll get it built faster if you cooperate. Because if you don’t cooperate, we’re going to do what we’re doing now.”

I’ve been watching the fight unfold from afar, but after the lawsuits, I decided to see for myself if the school and neighbors are guilty of being NIMBYs.

The Epiphany School leaders the Rev. John Finley and Michelle Sanchez.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Not exactly.

To say the project is across the street from the school would be generous. It’s more like a stone’s throw from the school’s front door. Trinity is proposing to construct a four-story apartment building on a property occupied by the Fitzpatrick Brothers Auto Body, which has been in business since 1894, first repairing horse-drawn wagons.

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Early last year, Epiphany proposed to buy the Fitzpatrick property and presented an alternative plan for affordable housing, one that feels right-sized in a community of single-family and two-family homes. In October, Finley said he sat down with Jim Keefe, the Trinity Financial principal leading the project, but didn’t have much luck convincing the developer to step aside.

I stopped by the auto body shop last week to see if anyone would be up for a new deal, but no one wanted to talk.

The Fitzpatrick Brothers Auto Body in Dorchester.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Jemison, the BPDA director, has been well aware of Finley’s concerns and visited the school in 2022 shortly after his appointment.

Both Keefe and Jemison declined comment, citing pending litigation. The proposal green-lit by the BPDA is smaller than what Trinity originally proposed, though larger than what the property is zoned for. The project — which went through multiple layers of city and state review — is dense because it is part of an effort to create transit-oriented housing. The site sits near the Red Line’s Shawmut Station.

Epiphany has sued to annul BPDA’s approval and reopen the planning process.

Epiphany’s counter-proposal can sound far-fetched. But the the school over the years has become a landlord, buying and creating multifamily housing nearby for faculty and teaching fellows.

If you exit the back door of the school, next door is the triple-decker where Michelle Sanchez, Epiphany’s principal, has lived with her family for a decade. All told, the school owns 36 units where some staff and their families can live rent-free.

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Sixth graders Dezilee Fortes (left) and Leo Santos enjoyed a snack of kiwi fruit while reading a book at The Epiphany School.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Epiphany is one of about 30 such schools around the world, most with ties to the Episcopal Church. Epiphany does not charge tuition; all students attend on full scholarships. The school raises money primarily from donors and foundations to fund its $7 million annual budget.

Epiphany specializes in educating the most economically disadvantaged children, such as those from families who have experienced homelessness and other trauma. Its motto: Never give up on a child. The school serves as a home away from home, operating from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and providing free breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Students can also attend summer camps for free.

The Dorchester location consists of a middle school for about 100 students and an early childhood center supporting 60 children and their parents. About 70 percent of the students are Black and 25 percent are Hispanic.

Students are selected by a combination of lottery and referral from the Department of Children and Families and organizations like Horizons for the Homeless and Brookview House, which supports low-income mothers and children in Boston.

“It’s a magical place,” said Patrick, a donor, volunteer, and board member of Epiphany. She and her husband Deval, the former governor, have been involved since the school was founded.

“Epiphany doesn’t just educate children,” Patrick said. “It really lifts whole families and the community.”

It is like no school I have ever visited. Step into a sixth-grade classroom, you see about 20 students in blue uniforms working closely with a teacher and a half-dozen teaching fellows. Some sit at desks; others settle into a sofa. Aromatherapy wafts in the air.

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Head teacher Ryan Jones discussed a book with sixth grader Anthony Vargas Tejada at The Epiphany School in Dorchester. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

But the pièce de résistance is the classroom set up in the school’s greenhouse, an oasis with potted lemon and grapefruit trees in the middle of an urban neighborhood. Eighth-graders are now learning how to plant paperwhites.

The outcomes are enviable among recent alumni: Almost all graduate from high school and about 84 percent finish college.

What frustrates Finley is that Epiphany has been a good neighbor. The school allows community groups to use its gym or conference room for free and offers free office space to nonprofits, such as early childhood advocacy group Neighborhood Villages, cofounded by Lauren Kennedy and Sarah Muncey.

And when the MBTA renovated Shawmut Station in 2009, Finley said, the school contributed more than $100,000 toward making it handicap accessible with an elevator.

An affordable housing development should be able to coexist with a school like Epiphany. The developer and the school have similar missions to champion affordable housing. They should have found a way to work together — maybe even join forces to craft a project everyone loves.

It’s not too late.

Sunlight streamed into the entrance of The Epiphany School in Dorchester. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist and host of the Globe Opinion podcast “Say More with Shirley Leung.” Find the podcast on Apple, Spotify, and globe.com/saymore. Follow her on Threads @shirley02186

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Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.