City wants ‘diversity, inclusion’ plan in all public land bids

As the city council holds hearings on the most effective ways for Boston to manage and dispense with municipally owned land, Mayor Martin Walsh and planning officials this week announced new equity requirements for public land being put out to bid.

The new policy, announced Sunday, would include “criteria to promote diversity and inclusion and prevent displacement” for all Request for Proposals (RFPs) from the Department of Neighborhood Development and the Boston Planning and Development Agency on public land going forward.

Those who respond to the RFPs would need to provide a “diversity and inclusion plan,” including an “an outreach program aimed at creating increased opportunities for people of color, women, and for M/BEs [minority business enterprises] to participate in the proposed development project.”

Laying out the ways in which diverse groups would have “meaningful participation” in construction, design, development, financing, operations, and ownership, the Walsh announcement said, will foster a more inclusive workforce more broadly in Boston.

“In order to create a Boston that is equitable for all, we must call on our partners in the development and business community to join us in increasing opportunities for our residents,” Walsh said. “These steps build on the measures we have taken to remove barriers that hinder individuals from reaching their full potential based on their background, race, or gender, while ensuring that new development on public land happens without displacement.”

Aside from the inclusive hiring component, the new requirements call for plans attached to each project to address displacement that might result from development. This is geared toward allowing current residents to affordably remain within their homes and communities, the administration said.

Although the sweeping criteria are new, the diversity and inclusion language is not. The city’s planning arm introduced it in an RFP released for Parcel 12 in Chinatown in 2017.

And community collaboration during the PLAN: Dudley Square process led to much of the new requirements, the announcement said. Four RFPs came out of that planning study for vacant parcels in need of redevelopment.

Encouraging responsible and inclusive development also sits high on the priority list for advocates and local legislators alike. City Councillor Lydia Edwards chaired a hearing in late September on land disposition and stewardship.

“We wanted to make sure that when we talk about housing policy that we all understand that you build a house from the ground up,” she said at the hearing. “And so where the land is going, who owns it, who has access to it is vital to our conversations about housing justice and assuring that we are housing a Boston for all.” Edwards was interested, she said, in how the city acquires, maintains, and ultimately disposes of land.

District 3 City Councillor Frank Baker applauded some existing city projects, like the Neighborhood Homes Initiative, which helps small developers create single- or multi-family homes on appropriately sized city-owned parcels. The initiative “provides real housing to people and potential generational wealth to build on with that type of housing,” he said.

Those who spoke included city housing officials, land trust groups, and community garden advocates.

One in five Bostonians pays 50 percent or more of their income on housing, said Sharon Cho, coordinator for the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, a part of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.

Individuals just cannot compete with investor-buyers, she said, and along with protecting and expanding affordable housing, the city should ensure that local communities have a say “in what and for whom development is built.”

Cho was there to suggest that when deciding what to do with a public parcel, the agencies in charge “first consider permanently affordable local housing or local community based economic development to stabilize Boston’s neighborhoods, and that there be a priority for public land disposition that coheres to a community-driven plan that offers that longest term of affordability and the highest level of community ownership and control.”

In the announcement on Sunday, the administration pointed to some new proposals in its updated citywide housing plan that establishes a goal of supporting the purchase of 1,000 rental housing units from the private market and income-restricting them. These units would be counted as part of the 15,820 affordable unit production plan.

The community land trust model, Cho said, is in place in neighborhoods like Roxbury, Chinatown, Dorchester, and Mattapan. Such trusts locally and nationally have a foreclosure rate of less than one percent, she said, and ensure that the residences are affordable in perpetuity.

An agreement with the city and the Dudley Neighbors Incorporated land trust led to the acquisition of several key sites in Uphams Corner that are now part of a focused revitalization project.

Tony Hernandez, director of the DNI trust, supervises a portfolio of 227 units of affordable housing in a mix of single- and two-family homes and rental units, a 10,000 square-foot greenhouse, and partner farms.

“We’ve had this specific equation that has worked in our neighborhood. It’s not the one-size-fits-all approach [where] you just have to flip a few variables in the equation but the outcome is the same. ... If we can get the land disposition control, it will allow the residents to control the process.”

The city has some tools that can make the process easier, like allocating money from the Acquisition Opportunity Fund or the Community Preservation Act pool to help land trusts buy property. Needling stagnant property owners with eminent domain talk can push them into action, Hernandez said, or at least negotiation.

Using city powers to nudge development toward inclusive ownership and affordability should be a central discussion of the development boom, councillors said.

“What I love about this discussion, “said Councillor Ayanna Pressley, “is that it is about actualizing something that we talk about a lot, and that is stewardship and community and the community being stewards. And community being stewards and having a stakehold should not be in the figurative — it is not a metaphor. It should be literal and it should be put into practice.”

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