This Issue

United They Stand

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 By Kiley Jacques

Social equity and sustainable development are the driving forces behind the Dudley Neighborhood Community Land Trust.

The way Greater Boston’s Dudley Triangle community has organized to revitalize and take ownership of their neighborhood is nothing short of inspired. So remarkable are their achievements that they now serve as a model for the development of community land trusts across the country.

Dudley Neighbors Incorporated (DNI) is a community land trust created by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) to implement a comprehensive master plan—drafted by residents—to guide the reclamation of their neighborhood, formerly a sea of vacant and abused lots. Principal among their goals was to avoid resident displacement, which is all too common when development occurs in marginalized communities.

Established in 1984, DSNI enabled residents—a predominantly Cape Verdean, African American, and Latino demographic—to gain control over a critical mass of 1,300 parcels of abandoned land. The nonprofit was backed by the City of Boston, which adopted the development plan and granted the power of eminent domain over much of the privately owned vacant land in the 62-acre area known as the Dudley Triangle.

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Dudley Neighbors Incorporated is a community land trust created by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative to guide the reclamation of their neighborhood, formerly vacant and abused lots.

DNI’s Director of Operations and Stewardship, Tony Hernandez, is a key figure leading the ongoing work of pushing the nonprofit’s agenda. He recalls the impetus for creating DNI: “You’d drive through here and it looked like a war zone.” There was a high rate of arson and illegal dumping—resulting in a profoundly blighted neighborhood of brownfields. “That sparked a campaign called ‘Enough Is Enough, Don’t Dump on Us,’ explains Hernandez, adding that it took the form of residents demanding that Mayor Ray Flynn help not only build the neighborhood but also give the community control of the development process. It worked. “It was a huge victory,” says Hernandez. “The organization then used eminent domain as a poking stick to reach out to owners of these parcels. That, along with a $2 million foundation grant, helped the organization acquire land and fold it into what, today, is our community land trust.”

The question became what to do with that land.

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Top: DNI owns 226 units of affordable housing, 96 of which are owned homes; the rest are co-operative rentals. Left and Right: The Food Project and the Urban Farming Institute are also stakeholders in the initiative.

Meeting of the Minds

In 1989, DNI began bringing in people who knew how to work with developers, whom the nonprofit partnered with to design and implement affordable housing plans.

Often, designers and developers are not intimately familiar with the project locale and its people. To address that scenario, DNI invites them to join community meetings for introductions and project presentations and discussions. Community members express to developers how they would like housing to look and function. For example, at the start of initial development they called for children’s bedrooms to be no less than 100 square feet in order to accommodate both a bed set and a desk; that is, a place to do homework. “It was a simple thing but it was meaningful to the community,” notes Hernandez. Additionally, they wanted larger backyards. Those requests resulted in 226 units rather than the 500 called for in the original plan.

During these meetings, developers and architects took notes and integrated requests into their design plans. “The community intent is to really drive a product that isn’t substandard,” explains Hernandez. “And to ensure that the developer isn’t coming in to create quantity. The community holds them accountable for creating quality.”

The process itself strengthened and benefitted the community. “It’s a great feeling when you walk away from these meetings knowing that your voice was heard—literally,” says Hernandez. “People from all around the community leave feeling empowered to control what happens in their neighborhood.”

 The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s (DSNI) mission is to empower Dudley residents to organize, plan for, create, and control a vibrant, diverse, and high-quality neighborhood in collaboration with community partners.

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s (DSNI) mission is to empower Dudley residents to organize, plan for, create, and control a vibrant, diverse, and high-quality neighborhood in collaboration with community partners.

The Equity Ratio

DNI’s reputation has solidified to such a degree that incoming developers who approached the City for building permits are directed to the nonprofit right off the bat to present their projects. “We’ve built that respect over the last few decades,” says Hernandez. “Initially it was more us fighting to have a seat at the table just to be heard. Now, people understand that we won’t back down.”

The developers are asked, point blank, “What are you bringing to the community?” 

DNI holds developers accountable by getting everything in writing—signed agreements ensure units remain at an affordable rate; cost developers are not allowed in to build at market rate. “We created a standard because we think it is fair that [housing] be divided into a third income, a third moderate, and a third market—that’s a level playing field for development in our neighborhood,” explains Hernandez. They also advocate for a local workforce to be used—one that comprises 51 percent minority, 34 percent local, and 15 percent women.

For 30 years, DNI has worked to prevent resident displacement as a result of development. “The process is an anti-inflammatory against gentrification,” says Hernandez. Strategies for ensuring social equity include getting enough community members engaged to keep their eyes open for new developments, and to bring news to DNI when something unfamiliar is slated for the neighborhood. In such cases an invitation is sent to the developer to start a conversation. “We want to make it a community project, not an individual project,” stresses Hernandez.

Earning the Credit

The Social Equity in the Community credit within the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system dovetails perfectly with projects such as DNI’s. The credit intends to encourage developers to promote social equity by integrating strategies that address social and community needs and disparities among community members affected by the project. The idea is to build fair, healthy, supportive environments.

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For projects like DNI’s, working with community members is an integral part of the design process and improving equitable access is a core part of the project mission. In some cases, however, that deep engagement is beyond a developer’s scope or capacity. Therefore, developers looking to earn the credit can follow one of two paths: One is for a project team to conduct its own community engagement and needs assessment process using the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) documentation system. The other is for teams to partner with local organizations representing community needs and concerns—DNI being a prime example of this path.

Success Hard Won

Today, DNI owns 226 units of affordable housing, 96 of which are owned homes; the rest are co-operative rentals. There is a 10,000-sq-ft greenhouse, a 1.5-acre farm, community gardens, a playground, and one commercial space. Plans in the pipeline include the addition of 12 more affordable homes, an increase in commercial space, and development of a robust agricultural agenda.

Ultimately, the number of stakeholders working with DNI has grown to include not only local residents and small businesses but also Upham Corner Main Street; the Food Project; the Urban Farming Institute; Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation; the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development and the Mayor’s Office; pro bono attorneys from Goulston and Storrs; and financial institutions including Boston Private Bank, One United, and Century Bank. “We need to have representation from all perspectives to really make this work,” notes Hernandez.

Thanks to the comprehensive and deeply thoughtful approach to development without displacement, DNI stands as one of the nation’s most successful urban community land trusts to date.