When a city enjoys an economic renaissance, many residents end up left behind, wondering if they’ll ever benefit from the boom. The proverbial rising tide doesn’t lift all boats.
But sometimes, even in a city burdened by a big gap between haves and have-nots, some profits can trickle down to those in need of help.
Case in point: A new office tower in downtown Boston will help subsidize an apartment building in Jamaica Plain with 140 studios set aside for the homeless. Make that the soon-to-be formerly homeless. This would be a place where tenants could settle down for the long-term, with a roof over their heads and support services downstairs.
On Thursday, the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s board put the wheels in motion by scheduling a public hearing next month for a proposal to set aside up to $10 million for the as-yet-unnamed Jamaica Plain project. The money would come from linkage payments HYM Investment Group is required to make in return for permission to build a 1 million-square-foot office tower at One Congress St., one that will serve as the new home for the financial services giant State Street Corp.
Other companies have already stepped up for the Jamaica Plain project, which will be developed and operated by Community Builders and the Pine Street Inn. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has been banging the drum for two years after launching his Way Home Fund, with a goal of raising $10 million specifically for this. So far, the pledges total at least $8.7 million. Five corporate donors — Bank of America, Liberty Mutual, Suffolk Construction, Partners HealthCare, and MassMutual — are kicking in $1 million each.
Unlike those gifts, HYM’s contribution isn’t exactly voluntary. Developers of commercial projects in Boston that exceed 100,000 square feet and need zoning relief are required to make so-called linkage payments to the city for subsidized housing and job training.
Most of these payments go into the city-managed Neighborhood Housing Trust, which doles out grants. Occasionally, around once every 18 months, the city allows a direct subsidy. Usually in those cases, though, both the benefactor and the beneficiary are close to each other, in the same neighborhood.
Tim Davis, the BPDA’s housing policy manager, says the HYM contribution is unique in that direct linkage funds from a development in one part of the city will go to another part of the city. But Davis points out that the Jamaica Plain project, to be built on Pine Street Inn property at 3368 Washington St., serves a citywide need.
Davis says the deal came about when Community Builders’ chief executive, Bart Mitchell, sought help in landing financing and asked about HYM’s linkage payments. Tom O’Brien, HYM’s managing director, says city officials helped orchestrate the deal. O’Brien says he was more than happy to pitch in. He knows this is a big priority for Walsh, and he recognizes the pressing need.
Mitchell is still assembling the financing for the $80 million project. About 40 percent would be funded by investors seeking to tap into federal tax credits, Mitchell said, 35 percent with debt, and 25 percent from city and state funding (including HYM’s contribution). Assuming Mitchell lines up enough money, construction would start around this time next year.
The project would be the largest “supportive housing” complex for formerly homeless people in Boston, who would pay subsidized rents based on their income; it would also include 62 apartments for low- and moderate-income renters. The Way Home Fund would help pay for services, such as job placement and skills training, offered there.
Walsh has made it a priority to address homelessness in the city, onemade more challenging by his sudden closing of the dilapidated Long Island Bridge in 2014. Social service providers scrambled to compensate for the loss of shelter beds on the island. The Pine Street Inn’s president, Lyndia Downie, said the opioid addiction crisis has exacerbated the situation.
Downie said the number of chronically homeless people here has dropped significantly in the past few years, and city officials hold weekly meetings with Pine Street Inn and other service providers to drive that number down further. But there’s much work that still needs to be done: By the city’s most recent tally, more than 6,200 people were homeless in 2019, a nearly 1 percent increase from 2018.
The Jamaica Plain project will be the first of its kind. But it doesn’t have to be the last. Walsh will trek to the State House on Tuesday to make the case for a home-rule petition that would give Boston more flexibility in increasing the linkage payments it can extract from developers.
Boston’s boom shows no sign of ending anytime soon. Then again, neither does the need for housing that everyone can afford.
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.