Dealing with the housing crisis: The Hong Lok example

The housing crisis in the United States is more than home sales, lending rules and interest rates.  Yes, these are important to the economy, but so is the inability of people to find safe, affordable rental housing in a place they feel comfortable.  One of the things that has happened with all the federal budget cut-backs is the reduction of federal funds to help develop affordable housing.

One of the last projects I helped get off the ground before I retired was the Hong Lok House development in Boston’s Chinatown and I was overjoyed to see it featured in today’s Boston Globe business section.

The $35 million project accomplishes the rare feat of expanding affordable housing in Chinatown at a time when luxury high-rises are popping up across the neighborhood, bringing an influx of wealthier renters.

Completion of the first phase next month will create 32 units for low-income elderly residents, who will move from the old Hong Lok building to a new one next door. The original building, which has fallen into disrepair, will be demolished to make way for another 42 units by spring 2014.

Perhaps more noteworthy than the project’s recent progress is the decadelong struggle to get it financed, which underscores the extreme difficulty of keeping housing in city neighborhoods affordable to a diverse population.

Behind the struggle is a dramatic drop in federal funding for new affordable housing.

Over the past decade, Boston’s allocation of community development block grant money has plummeted nearly 40 percent, to $15.3 million this year, and so-called Home funding has dropped 60 percent, to just $3.55 million, according to city records.

A separate US Housing and Urban Development program for low-income seniors has also been slashed about 50 percent.

That forces developers of affordable housing to rely more heavily on private lending and gifts from institutions.

Jamie Seagle, who would be the first to admit that he and I butted heads more than once, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for making this happen.  It was not only the funding that was an issue, but also building in an historic district with historic structures.   I think the agreement we were able to reach that preserved the historic facades and built units behind them were consistent with the character of the neighborhood worked for everyone.  Yes, it wasn’t easy:  many architects, federal agencies, state agencies, the neighborhood, and at least 3 City of Boston agencies had to agree.  But the fact that we could shows that the process can work.

“To create a site in Boston where you can maintain affordable housing is almost an impossibility today,” said James Seagle, president of Rogerson Communities, Hong Lok’s nonprofit developer. “What’s happening for people of lesser means is that the rents are going up, and the properties where they can obtain housing are steadily going away.”

He said the project involved a decade of legal and financial engineering that generated a three-foot sheaf of closing papers; in contrast, Rogerson’s first project 30 years ago, the 75-unit Farnsworth House in Jamaica Plain, took only 18 months and produced a slim 1½-inch binder for the closing papers.

When I retired last August our first banker’s storage box was full.

When thinking about President Obama’s Second Inaugual speech defending the role of government, one need to look no futher than project like Hong Lok which are happening all around the country.  These are public/private partnerships.

In the case of Hong Lok, developers tapped a complex patchwork of 23 funding sources, including a $17 million loan from Boston Private Bank & Trust Co., a $2 million gift from State Street Corp., and $1.4 million from the Charles H. Farnsworth Trust.

That was on top of millions of dollars provided by the state Department of Housing and Community Development and multiple city agencies.

“It used to be that you’d have three or four sources of funding; now it’s 10 or 12 and sometimes even more than that,” said Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “Too many people are being forced to leave Chinatown, and this housing will create more possibilities for people who want to stay there.”

So as we head into budget negotiations, Congress and the President need to think about rental housing and how to fund it.  Yes, people like Jamie Seagle can make the current climate work and I don’t think anyone is advocating for the days when a huge percentage of any affordable housing project is federally funded, but more cuts will only hurt the people on Ruth Moy’s waiting list.

But that program alone is unable to keep up with the demand. When Hong Lok opens, for example, it will have a three- to five-year backlog of applications from people trying to get a unit. The complex will have an attractive mix of comforts, including a rooftop garden, a community center for seniors, and an expanded adult day health program.

“I don’t even want to think about it,” Ruth Moy, executive director of the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, said when asked about the demand. “We have a very long waiting list of people who want to stay in this neighborhood. But how long can they wait for affordable housing?”

Three facades conceal a building that houses newly built Hong Lok housing units

Three facades conceal a building that houses newly built Hong Lok housing units

Photograph JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

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