Not in Newton’s Back Yard: Affordable Housing in Newton

Well-heeled progressives champion liberal ideals, ­including housing the homeless. Just don’t try it in their neighborhood.

This decommissioned firehouse in Waban became the battleground between affordable-­housing advocates and fearful residents. (Photograph by Justin M. Hamel)

On the western end of Beacon Street, a block from Newton-Wellesley Hospital, sits a charming 1917 brick firehouse with a lookout tower, known in these parts as Engine 6. Decommissioned as a fire station decades ago, the building marks the entrance to Waban, one of the most affluent of Newton’s 13 villages. A leafy enclave where average home prices top $2 million and incomes and education levels rank among the nation’s highest, it has long been the neighborhood of choice for Red Sox players from Ted Williams to Jason Varitek—an upscale slice of suburban paradise just 7.5 miles due west of Fenway Park.

Newton is a reliable redoubt of philanthropy and progressive politics—in 2012, an overwhelming 71 percent of the city voted for Barack Obama. The city’s ambitious Democratic mayor, Setti Warren, is often mentioned as a candidate for higher office, and was the favorite for the Democratic Senate nomination in 2012 before being shoved aside by Elizabeth Warren, who nonetheless carried Newton by nearly two votes to one. But despite its progressive bona fides, the city has long struggled to live up to its liberal ideals in one major area: affordable housing.

The city is already 90 percent built out, and it is chronically short of the state-mandated threshold of having 10 percent of its units be affordable housing. When an affordable unit comes on the market—a one-bedroom condo for $155,000, or a two-bedroom rental for $1,269 per month—Newton treats it like a lottery ticket. So in the summer of 2013, when the idea of converting Engine 6 came along, Setti Warren and other city officials felt they had a slam-dunk idea for expanding their affordable-housing stock. The city would partner with Pine Street Inn, the highly respected provider of services to the homeless throughout the region, best known for its shelters in Boston. Together, they’d convert Engine 6 into permanent housing for nine chronically homeless people and one supervisor. The proposal called for a nonprofit developer to use $1.4 million in city-controlled federal low-income housing funds toward the $3 million redevelopment project, picking up the rest from state funds and other sources. It seemed like a rare—nearly singular—chance to use an existing building to help the very poor. Everyone involved with the proposal seemed eager to help the disadvantaged.

And so it came to pass that in mid-June of 2013, about 60 residents gathered at the Waban community library on a cool Monday night to air their thoughts with officials from Pine Street Inn and their partner, Metro West Collaborative Development.

Representatives from Pine Street and Metro West were just a few slides into their presentation when residents began asking loud, angry questions. Just who exactly would be selected to live at Engine 6? And where would they get needed services? And who thought Waban would make a good home for “those people,” anyway?

The presenters seemed ill prepared. The tenant resources they listed were located in Boston and Brookline, and appeared to be boilerplate from other projects. A half-hour in, Newton Alderman Brian Yates recalls thinking that the meeting was already a total disaster. Then someone asked if the target population would include sex offenders. And things got worse.

In response to the question, one of the presenters gave a frustrating, bureaucratic answer: Sex-offender information was blocked by law, and inaccessible. “That drove people crazy,” says Yates, who adds that a more helpful response would have been something like, “We’re going to screen these people within an inch of their lives and we’ll make damn sure that no one who’s not squeaky clean will get in.”

The presenters appeared to be in shock. Up to that moment, the plan had received nothing but unequivocal support, at least within City Hall, according to Alderman Deb Crossley, who moderated the meeting. Furious, a representative from Metro West told the crowd that the city was going ahead with the plan anyway. A resident exploded, pleading, “Why are you doing this to us?” Crossley, an architect by trade, says, “Many were agitated and angry, believing we would deliberately introduce a criminal element into their pristine community.”

Kathleen Hobson, a Stanford graduate and mother of three—her husband is the acclaimed surgeon and author Atul Gawande—was one of the only neighbors who spoke in favor of the idea. Having volunteered at Pine Street Inn for years, she didn’t share their fears. “The accusations bore no relation to the people I knew—you know, the crazies, the pederasts, the drug addicts wandering our leafy streets scaring our children,” she says. “That just didn’t jibe with the reality I knew.”

By the end of the meeting, Jennifer Van Campen, Metro West’s executive director, felt uneasy at the thought of walking to her car by herself. “People were really attacking me,” she says, “pointing their finger, turning red, and spitting. ‘Why are you trying to ruin my neighborhood?’ We were underprepared for people’s vehemence.”

That night, Van Campen wasn’t the only one concerned about her personal safety. “One gentleman said something to the effect that, ‘You don’t care if the people around here live or die. You’re putting our lives in jeopardy,’” Yates recalls. “I just wanted to get out of there without a riot breaking out.”

  • joanmcn@aol.com

    Isn’t it interesting that these liberals don’t want the riff raff in their backyard yet they fight for these people to be pushed into other cities and towns. Does the word hypocrite come to mind?

    • gew60

      I commented how we love mivies about people that are downtrodden or books but we would never have these people as friends or associate with them!

    • mplo

      These are undoubtedly the same liberals who wholeheartedly favored Boston’s disastrous mandatory school busing program that took Boston by storm in the mid-1970’s, which lasted over a decade, and condemned the people in Boston’s white working-class ethnic communities as a bunch of racists per se, without really considering the fact that, while white racism was a significant factor in opposition to mandatory school busing in Boston, there was way more to it than that; the issues were socioeconomic in origin, so class, as well as race, played a substantial role in Boston’s school crisis, although these same liberals probably never wanted to acknowledge that.

  • Michael

    In what world is $155,000 for a 1BR condo affordable housing? This article is hilarious.

    • mr wonderful

      In Boston.

  • Patty

    What a bunch of elitist, bigoted and misinformed people. Not all homeless people are mentally ill, sex offenders or substance abusers. Many of the homeless are the working poor who are trying to take care of their families and would rather work than be on welfare. There are also many elderly homeless people who sadly have learned that they just cannot house themselves on their meager Social Security checks. I live in Jamaica Plain and we have a housing unit run by Pine Street Inn here. In the over 15 years that the residents have been here there has not been one incident that I am aware of. The property is well run and clean. The residents are people that are happy to have a home and want to be good neighbors. This property has not driven anyone’s proeprty values down as Jamaica Plain is booming. The people of Waban should be ashamed of themselves. Their veiled fears fool no one and they can pretend all they want that they are not ignorant and prejudiced. They may have money but sure do not have any compassion or common sense. I am glad I do not live in such an environment. It would be deterimental to my own mental health to be around such ignorance and hatred.

    • Ming the Merciless

      Not all homeless people are mentally ill, sex offenders or substance abusers — but that’s the way to bet.

      • mplo

        Not all of them are, but a substantial percentage of the homeless DO have other problems in addition to being homeless, including mental illness, or drug/alcohol abuse problems, etc., as well.

  • http://www.cyberartisans.com Jonathan

    This is why we moved out of Newton. We now live in Brighton and we have a halfway house on our street. The guys in that house are polite and friendly, although they obviously have had their share of problems. We have never felt threatened by any of them. There is a school a couple of blocks away and school children walk past the halfway house every day without concern. Oh yeah, our property values are just fine, thank you, and we enjoy not feeling a conflict between our principles and our lives.

  • Lazarus Long

    This story tells a sad tale of how a few zealots can ruin what could have been a prime opportunity to improve their community by inclusion.

    • Ming the Merciless

      Because nothing “improves” a community like bringing in bums, addicts, loonies, and criminals.

    • mplo

      That’s one reason why many people move out to suburbs such as Newton, Lincoln, etc; because they don’t want such people around, or on their doorstep.

  • Guest

    And infuriating situation but a well-written, in-deth d

  • kwattu

    An infuriating situation but a well-written, in-depth discussion of a project that should have garnered a lion’s share of support from this entitled community.

  • Guest

    This isn’t even the whole story. What about all the other affordable projects the city has denied? Those are all 40B projects, but they had the same problem of being in the “wrong location”. Are there any projects that the city supports? Would they count Austin St.? They’ve been at that one for years with little progress. Hard to get to 10% at that pace (0 built/year).

  • guest

    As someone who opposed the project (I worked for a social service agency for 8 years in Boston) it was not because I did not want homeless people on my street. This was a lousy location, basically on an on-ramp to 128, for anyone with mental health or physical challenges. What would these residents do? Walk a mile to Starbucks and hang out? Shop at the Waban Market for gourmet foods and hit Barry’s Deli for a NY priced pastrami sandwich? People in recovery and those with physical and mental health challenges need community and ease of services, and they were not going to get that easily in the firehouse. It was not a well thought out location which was going to cost an incredible amount of money to help less than 10 people – my social service agency served 500 people annually for that same amount of money. The “non-supporter” residents who really do care about helping people (by getting them the right type of well located facility) were made to look like heathens by the supporting group who delivered fliers and took out full page ads in the local newspaper to show what a-holes the “non-supporters” were, without even understanding where people were coming from. I’m not sure the “supporters” deserve accolades – they drove the bus that drove the wedge in the neighborhood that still exists.

    • Stephen J. O’Rourke

      Oh really!

    • hometeam

      So what you’re saying is the idea is good, but “Not In My Backyard?” That seems to be how the article is describing the “non-supporter” residents. Sounds pretty accurate to me. You just simply verified the grossly obvious.

      • guest

        No, that’s not what I said at all. What I said was find suitable housing for these people in need – don’t stick them on an on ramp to 128 a mile’s walk from groceries and public transportation. Don’t spend extreme amounts of money to help a small amount of people when a properly sited building costing less can help more. You can paint me and others as NIMBYs all you want. We asked for the firehouse to house low income families that could take advantage of our school. If you choose to see only one side of the story, so be it.

        • hometeam

          The same ramp where they are building 3 luxury condos at Engine 6? Really? Must be a terrible place to live. You don’t understand the mechanics of assisting homeless individuals and families. That is very clear. There’s a very good chance the only difference between a homeless person and a “low income” person and for that matter the “wealthy” person purchasing one of those luxury condos is a job. And a home. To get a job a person needs a place of residence. So ignorant are you. I have a full time job, am a homeowner, have retirement accounts, blah blah blah, and I don’t walk to the Starbucks, I think they are over priced. I don’t shop at a gourmet grocery, and don’t buy sandwiches at the over priced deli. I go to work and come home on transit. I shop at a grocery on the transit route I take. And make excellent sandwiches at home. In the evenings I mostly read. When I go out I take the transit or my bike, a cheap one that I picked up for nothing. I suspect whoever buys the luxury condos at Engine 6 will be able to do the same thing. Clearly you are unable, but I bet a “homeless” person could. Except for one small detail, if they were living there they wouldn’t be “homeless”. Your “argument” is pathetic and only serves to describe the pitiful one sided attitude of the opponents to this project. You’ve painted yourself NIMBY in hi-res. Thanks for the affirmation. You seem to have opposable thumbs, try to act like a human.

          • guest

            It is useless to argue with someone who only wants to see one side of a story.

          • hometeam

            Thank you. I certainly agree, I’m probably wasting my time. But don’t you want to understand the other side of the story?
            I certainly see your side. Homeless people are pathetic useless human beings who can’t learn to use a transit system, or ride a bike, or walk a mile. They are dirty, disrespectful, and use drugs. And they are child molesters. But if that person I just described had a minimum wage job, actually a minimum wage job couldn’t support housing costs. So lets say that person has a $15/hour job, but qualifies for “affordable housing”, that would be okay. Only difference being the job. I can see your side of the story, I just don’t understand it. Believe me, you are wrong in so many ways. Just keep telling yourself how useless a task it is to learn from others….about other human beings.

  • Carol M

    “Apparently, all it would take to turn the historical majesty of Waban into Chelsea was a shelter for nine homeless people.” Residents from Waban have a hell of a way to go before they are anything like Chelsea. In Chelsea a similar project got community approval after reasonable, decent people had several logical discussions with similar developers and it is now in construction. Chelsea is a community that may not have much but their residents believe in supporting fellow human beings in need. More Waban residents should try to emulate the community values of Chelsea.

  • Stephen J. O’Rourke

    Are you just realizing their hypocrisy ! Most liberals….oops…I mean “Progressives” talk the talk all the time. They go to segregated schools, live in segregated neighborhoods, etc… Keep fighting it. HUD and the DOJ will be on you and force more “affordable” housing in the city.

  • Ming the Merciless

    Work has already begun on the condos, expected to be completed later this year—a sad denouement to an unfortunate chapter in Waban history. At press time, no one had demanded the future occupants be screened for mental illness, substance abuse, or a criminal record.

    Heh, the high-six-figure price tag is a pretty effective screen against loonies, addicts, and criminals.

  • guest

    Every single person I know who was against the project as it was presented TOTALLY SUPPORTED the concept of making Engine 6 either affordable housing FOR FAMILIES or transitional or permanent housing FOR LOW INCOME FAMILIES. I don’t know a single person in Waban who doesn’t support the concept of affordable housing IN WABAN. You non-Wabinites can paint the picture that we are a bunch of Ivy League, liberal elite NIMBYs all you want. You only know what you know from this article.

  • http://www.singularresolutions.com Richard B.

    Ming the Merciless is evidently Ming the clueless. Since the professions with the third highest rate of drug abuse are media, entertainment, and sports professionals, there are clearly lots of people in the upper income bracket with abuse issues. As for (alleged, of course), criminals, would you rather have Aaron Hernandez, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, or a homeless person living down the block? And among the upper echelons of finance, studies show that CEOs have four times the rate of psychopathology of the general population. The dream world of the well-off conceals much; the stereotypes of the lower classes distort just as much.

  • jACK hANLEY

    In working class Southie 40 years ago they were hateful racist bigots for not wanting “outsiders” being brought in to their neighborhood. But today in elitist Waban it’s ok because the “outsiders” would prevent kids from getting ice cream. They had ice cream shops then in Southie, if only Louise Day Hicks knew of this strategy, then she would have beat Judge Garrity.
    Fear is fear, then as now. Fear of the unknown, of the perceived “outsiders”, and of losing precious real estate value, the classic gated community mentality. Maybe Waltham should annex Waban, then the location problem would be a mute point.

    • Lauren

      If it were “OK” for the Wabanites to fight off this development, would there be a story? (I think you wanted “moot”).

  • steve

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cico.12015/epdf

    If the affordable housing in the link above is any indicator, as long as the project was handled well, there would’ve been no increase in crime or devaluing of surrounding property. People’s fears are completely misguided. Subsidized housing has been linked to increases in crime, but that’s in large, urban areas. Introducing affordable housing to suburbs won’t hurt the community as long as the necessary steps (which aren’t much) are taken.