Look at the Big Picture
To the Editor,
The BPDA Board voted to fast-track the Constitution Inn’s conversion to the Independence, bypassing an Impact Advisory Committee and the article 80 process. Since the building exists, and in response to Mayor Wu’s urgent call for housing, the Board determined that additional review was unnecessary. Granting a change of use permit does not absolve anyone from the responsibility to cultivate a healthy neighborhood—free of crime, nuisance, and disturbances– to the best of everyone’s ability.
It is important to assess Independence’s impact on the public realm as part of the review process. Collectively, the BPDA and the proponents remain responsible for addressing these impacts, even though the public process has been eliminated for expediency. The publicly available data for police calls from existing permanent supportive housing forecasts future potential problems for Charlestown.
In 2023 our satellite Vine Street police department reduced crime despite their limited resources. During two public safety meetings, the police provided statistics showing reductions year over year in violent crime, drug trafficking and usage. This progress is especially meaningful given Charlestown’s history of drug overdoses, which are remembered in Peace Park.
Steve Thompson, in a 12/12/23 Washington Post article about the challenges of supportive housing identified “the gap between a program’s ideals versus what is happening on the ground.” In reviewing the status quo in the Navy Yard, one needs only examine the two existing highest occupancy residential buildings—Flagship Wharf and Harborview. The former are condominiums; the latter are rental units. With over 400 residences combined, there were a total of 69 calls in 58 weeks (about 1 year 1 and a half months) to the police. This call volume is infrequent, with rare serious causality. People who live here know that this is a quiet neighborhood even with significant tourism in the summer and fall.
In contrast, Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) apartments at 48 Boylston Street, delivered 1.5 times the number of incident calls to the police; with over 80% fewer residences. This is a wakeup call.
The proponents–the Saint Francis House, and the Planning Office of Urban Affairs (POUA)– have stated repeatedly that the shelter population is the instigation for the Boylston Street police calls—at a pace described by our Vine Street police as “Constant” A careful review of the public police calls reveals apartment numbers and some designations for shelter activity separately. Nonetheless, the Saint Francis House administration of the two Boylston residences is responsible for effectively managing the shelter and the PSH apartments so as not to adversely affect the surrounding neighborhood. Running a shelter is an enormous challenge, and negative impacts must be proactively prevented. This is a lapse between intent and results.
One “proven model of success” in the proponents’ 10/19/23 Constitution Inn public meeting presentation, is the Huntington YMCA. These 89 affordable residences, for individuals and families in transition, had over 280 calls to the police during that same 58-week period. Like all properties that were reviewed, the call content includes nuisances, hang-ups, but also serious disturbances, medical emergencies, and crimes. Currently, success is measured exclusively by putting a roof over someone’s head. While this is the proponent’s primary purpose, it is important to add a neighborhood impact metric and accountability if any entity is to be in the housing business. Without it, salvation for some unhoused people will never produce better solutions for all.
In the same public presentation, the staffing plan of a 1:4 staff to client ratio raises questions. If there are 60 people in PSH designated apartments, there should be 15 people on staff. The wording of “qualified households headed by women,” and “qualified households headed by veterans” is confusing Since the total stated population is between 150 and 160 residents, it is unclear if the PSH designated studios are for an individual or a household. And, if this staffing model is optimal, then should not it be employed at 48 Boylston Street—also cited as a success. Using the amount of police calls as a baseline; Independence would double call frequency to 220 calls in the 58-week timeline. This mathematical projection is a logical, and predictable forecast.
In the same Washington Post article, Steve Thompson states: “Some people in supportive housing behave dangerously.” Many in Charlestown doubt that the required expertise will become reality. The “measure of success” cannot be so one-sided as to ignore any data-driven negative impact on our neighborhood. This is the big picture.
Councilor Coletta was gentle in her assessment of the BPDA’s failures, the broken process, and the need for accountability to Charlestown. We look forward to seeing the Councilor’s request for a codified agreement fast-tracked, as it is urgently needed.
The above letter was sent to the BPDA, Saint Francis House, the POUA, and our elected officials, it was signed by 45 Charlestown residents.