Trinity Financial Is Building New Middle-Class Housing in Boston

And it's in high demand, too.

Boston is a popular place to live, and as we all know, an expensive one, too. As a result, people who want to move to Boston don’t come, and those who move here for a short time don’t stay. And many of those who have lived here a long time end up leaving because they can no longer afford to rent an apartment or buy a home.

For hints on how to deal with the problem, look to Boston-based Trinity Financial, which has been building housing affordable to the middle class for almost three decades. Over the past 27 years, the development firm has successfully built almost a billion dollars of projects, all the way from the pricey Avenir apartments at North Station to Hope VI housing developments in Roxbury and Roslindale.

Seven years ago, Trinity tried something new in Boston when it built The Carruth, a mixed-income project in Dorchester, offering both rental and purchase options. The project includes 74 apartments on floors two to four, 66 offered to households earning no more than 60 percent of area median income (AMI), and eight available to those earning no more than 30 percent of AMI. There are 42 market-rate condominiums on floors five and six, competitively priced for the neighborhood but cheaper by two-thirds what they would cost in downtown Boston. There is street-level retail and a restaurant and the building is located next to the MBTA’s Ashmont station, providing residents with immediate access to the Red Line, Mattapan trolley, and major bus lines.

On paper, the project seemed like a slam dunk, offering affordable apartments and condominiums located within the city’s limits and built right next to a major transit hub. Paul McMorrow wrote about Trinity Financial for the Boston Globe last week, giving it the praise it deserves, but leaving out a couple of critical points about The Carruth.

Even the uber-successful Trinity wasn’t immune to external events. The Carruth was completed in 2008, just as the U.S. and world economy were cratering. The developer was able to fill all of its apartments almost immediately, but had trouble finding buyers for the condominiums.

Trinity rented out the empty condos when it couldn’t find buyers, and this carried the project through the recession. There’s been a dramatic change during the past year, with the economy improving and the city’s real estate market returning to its frothy heights. During the past 18 months, 17 condos at The Carruth have sold after just one sold in all of 2012. But six units remain unsold-six years after the project first opened its doors.

Trinity is now proposing a mixed-use project across the street from The Carruth. The new building (temporary name: Ashmont TOD2) will have five stories of residential housing on top of street-level retail. It will be slightly smaller than The Carruth, with 85 units, but be a similar mix of subsidized apartments and market-rate homeownership units, again with the apartments on the lower floors and the condos on the upper two.

The condos at Ashmont TOD2 will be more expensive than at The Carruth, and that’s where Trinity might face some resistance. Kenan Bigby, Trinity’s project manager, says that he expects condos in the new building to be listed at an average of around $490 per square foot. Meanwhile, condominiums at The Carruth sold for an average of $299 per square foot.

That would still be well below downtown Boston condo prices but significantly above the norm for Dorchester, where very few condos have sold in $500 per square foot range-ever. Trinity is assuming that, by the time the new project opens, the higher prices will be the norm in the neighborhood and that buyers will accept the aggressive pricing. Probably, but the future is an unknown.

The Carruth’s condos came with hefty HOA fees. If Ashmont TOD2 comes with the same monthly costs, potential buyers may balk. And, even with the (eventual) success of The Carruth, it’s an unproven in Boston that you can successfully build similar mixed-income projects. Do market-rate homeowners want to live above low-income and middle-income tenants paying subsidized rents?

Buyers in Boston looking for mid-priced, new construction condos have few choices. Let’s hope it continues with its mission to build housing affordable to all and that home respond favorably to what it is offering. Maybe it will even encourage other developers to do the same.