Newton Mayor Setti Warren is catching flak from some Garden City liberals for withholding $1.4 million in city-controlled federal money for a ten-unit building in a former fire station in the Waban section of Newton. The so-called Engine 6 project would house nine chronically homeless and an attendant, bringing to the residential neighborhood individuals with a history of drug addiction, mental illness and, according to the original proposal, level one sex offenses. Locals, protesting the project had been sprung on them, expressed concerned that the population could be a threat to the children of the neighborhood. The Mayor said the proposal would be revisited, but in the context of a community-wide discussion of how best to provide affordable housing.
It has been a long, long time since this city has had such a dialogue. The goal of state affordable housing policy is for a community to have ten percent of its units affordable. Many of Newton’s efforts have centered on accessibility for disabled individuals and monitoring to ensure non-discriminatory practices. With a dearth of buildable land, the city has labored hard over the years to build housing for low-income families, and, with eight percent affordable, has never reached the goal envisioned in state law.
I was one of a cadre of idealistic housing activists who, at the end of the 1960′s, went door to door to inform people that low-income housing would be coming to their neighborhoods. Ten neighborhoods throughout the city would be directly affected. For immediate abutters, the idea came more or less out of the blue, and the resulting polarization of the city lasted several years. Eventually, housing did get built at sites throughout the city, but, in situations like these, process, including public dialogue, is important.
I was reminded of that history when the first community meeting about the Engine 6 project was held just 24 hours before the developer (Metro West Collaborative Development), which would be working with the Pine Street Inn on the program, was to meet a key milestone in acquiring the property. Participants understandably felt railroaded.
Their anxieties were intensified with the distribution of a letter by a local psychiatrist raising serious questions about the pathology and volatility of the proposed population and the process for screening new residents. Proponents of the project, for their part, questioned the motives of those sharing his concerns, dismissing them as NIMBYism.
As the ward alderman, John Rice, wrote to the Newton TAB, “I know that my neighbors are open to good plans with good intentions. But those plans need a good process and respectful communication. This project did not fit that definition.”
Mayor Warren’s call for a time out on the endeavor makes sense. A cooling off period, combined with a thoughtful analysis of Newton’s unmet needs for affordable housing for diverse populations, could provide some enlightenment and reasonable modifications of the plans for Engine 6.
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