Philanthropists, housing rights advocates, nonprofit staff and elected leaders convened at the Barnes School Apartments in East Boston on Tuesday night, taking a victory lap for successfully completing one of the biggest and most unique housing deals of its kind: the acquisition of the aptly named Blue Line Portfolio.
It’s the single largest acquisition of family units in East Boston’s history, and the first of its kind on the East Coast. The newly formed East Boston Neighborhood Trust bought a portfolio of 36 mostly triple-decker buildings for $47 million in October, with the goal of keeping them affordable.
Mayor Michelle Wu said the project will “alter the course of how we think about the possibility in Boston, of using every tool at our disposal with every partner available to ensure that in perpetuity, we’re putting our resources into the communities’ hands in the model that will ensure that our neighbors, our residents, our family members can afford to stay.”
She was talking about what sets the East Boston Neighborhood Trust apart. It operates a Mixed-Income Neighborhood Trust, or MINT, which involves an entire trust of neighborhood organizations buying, owning and operating the space. It’s a model developed by Trust Neighborhoods in 2019, which differs from when a single community development corporation buys a property. Having multiple groups involved helps residents and local community organizations have a stronger voice in their neighborhoods, and combat gentirification, according to Trust Neighborhoods co-founder David Kemper.
“I think we've all read the [real estate] ads and they say ‘delivered vacant’ or ‘room for rental growth.’ And maybe developers look at that and say, ‘Great,’” said Boston Housing Chief Sheila Dillon to the crowd. “Every time I see one of those ads, it just takes the wind out of my sails. And I really think about who is being harmed and who has been vacated from those units. This type of development is so important. You all took 36 buildings out of the speculative market.”
Many of the 114 units are three bedrooms or more, with space for large families, a rarity in Boston. Twenty-eight will be designated to households making no more than 50% of area median income, or $70,100 for a family of four, 40 more will be for those at 60%, 26 units at 80% and 20 at 100% ($140,200 for a family of four), according to East Boston Community Development Corporations’s project planning document. The units will be income restricted in perpetuity.
“These are really big family units,” Dillon said.
Boston contributed $12 million to the purchase, taking millions from the city’s Acquisition Opportunity Program, which helps with buying and converting small buildings into affordable housing, and additional funds from federal pandemic relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act. City Councilors Kendra Lara and Gigi Coletta first proposed putting $1 million of ARPA funds toward the project last year.
“The risk of losing 114 units to the speculative market, displacing hundreds of families in East Boston, was not a reality any of us entertained at all. We got to work at an unprecedented level of collaboration,” said Coletta, a lifelong East Boston resident.
In the months following GBH News’ first report on the effort to buy the Blue Line Portfolio, East Boston CDC and other organizations fundraised $2.7 million from nonprofits like The Boston Foundation, Hyams Foundation and Eastern Bank Foundation.
Eastern Bank, Property & Casualty Initiative and Everett Cooperative Bank loaned more than $31 million in total, and at least 17 other groups and individuals provided equity for financing.
The trust will be governed by a Trust Stewardship Committee, which will include three renters, East Boston Community Developent Corporation’s Tanya Hahnel, a community organization representative (currently Andres Del Castillo of City Life/Vida Urbana) and two more community organization representatives from PUEBLO and East Boston Social Centers.
It's also governed by an operating board, with a representative from both East Boston CDC and Trust Neighborhoods, two housing organization representatives, and a renter.
“We started to wrestle with the fact that our city — and this neighborhood in particular — was the epicenter of a housing crisis that is now a statewide and even national crisis,” Del Castillo said.
Advocates say the fabric of the neighborhood is at stake. Waves of immigrants over the past two hundred years have made East Boston their first, and sometimes permanent, home. But with mass development comes mass displacement. Home values in the neighborhood have soared 227% since 2011 — higher than any other Boston neighborhood.
And it’s often longtime residents bearing the brunt of the changes.
“This neighborhood embodies the specialness of our city, a place where everyone can come, generation after generation see themselves welcomed and reflected. And see a better life for their kids,” Wu said.
She said her administration wants to take the MINT model “forward to other neighborhoods across the city.”