Bloomfields Garden Housing Project

Last week, all the staff at Viet-AID attended a city council abt Boston City Hall hearing to get zoning veriance for one of their real estate development projects in the LIC (Low-Income Community) area of Dorchester, Mass. In order to build the affordable housing apartment complex, Viet-AID had to acquire the zoning veriance from the city so that they can proceed with funding application and steps toward construction. To obtain a zoning veriance is indeed a very complicated and difficult task since Viet-AID must have the support of the surrounding community and work to incorporate the community’s inputs in their projects.  Viet-AID has started this project 3 years ago and the last two times they went for zoning veriance, they have received very negative opposition from the surrounding community.

Bloomfields Garden Housing Complex will provide 27 housing units available for renting for people with income 30% below the median income and are in poverty (at least 10 units are set aside for homeless people). The building design is ecological friendly with many energy efficient features. Viet-AID also has compiled a list of 30 eligible residents who are apt to rent the units and another list of more than 150 people who are not eligible (due to reasons other than income level) but interested in the project as well. Thus, there is clearly a need for this project.

When one hears about affordable housing, it would be natural to assume that such a well-meaning project would easily win the approval of the community, especially since the new development will reduce the number of petty crimes, create jobs,  provide more demands for services, and facilitate the steps toward the American dreams for many low-income people. That’s why I was very shocked to see how the hearing went for the zoning veriance of Bloomfields Garden Housing Project.

The staff of Viet-AID have prepared for a long time for this hearing: they have conducted community hearings many times in the past 3 years, they have asked for support letters from senators, house representatives, city councilors and Viet-AID clients who live in Fields Corner neighborhood, mobilized the people within Fields Corner (FC) to call up their representatives about supporting the project, and asked people to come the hearing to support the agency. Thus, last Tuesday morning, a group of 10 of us went to the hearing, and we met up with another group of 15-20 people who also showed up to support the project.

Nonetheless, I felt like I’m going to a death match because there was a clear division between the two sides, mostly visible with the stickers “I support Bloomfields Garden” versus “I oppose Bloomfields Garden”. It is also a clear division between races, the neighborhood community that opposes the project include mostly white Caucasians who have lived in FC for more than 30 years while the people who came to support BG are mostly Vietnamese immigrants and African-American residents in FC.

The hearing started with the architect that Viet-AID hired who explained the general plan for BG construction. The BG project originally was designed with 34 housing units and a commercial space in the lowest level. Nonetheless, the project was opposed strongly by the community because the 34 units would make the housing ratio too high (the number of residents per square feet) and the height of the 34-unit building would be higher than the tallest building in the Fields Corner neighborhood. Thus, the architect showed the adjustment that Viet-AID has made by decreasing the number of housing units, eliminating the commercial space, and adding outside parking lot.

After the architecture, one of the two city representatives went up and made the case about the contribution of Viet-AID within Fields Corner community (esp. the Civic Center that Viet-AID built 5 years ago where I currently work and how it has dramatically changed the face of the neighborhood-positively).  The president of the Vietnamese American Association also spoke on the behalf of Viet-AID, and so did the representative of the Dorchester neighborhood community (who was African-American). Sam Yoon, one of the candidates who is running for the Mayor of Boston position and lives in Fields Corner neighborhood, also came up and spoke highly about Viet-AID.

It got more interesting when the opposition side presented their case. The other city representative (who receives a lot of support from the Vietnamese community) spoke against the project due to the fact that she has received more calls from her constituents who are not in favor of the new construction. Two of the members of the Fields Corner Neighborhood opposed the project in term that the new housing would increase the traffic, there are not enough parking space, Viet-AID didn’t keep their promise of building the commercial space. The last person who spoke on the opposition side was a 80-year old lady who has lived in Fields Corner for more than 40 years and she said “I will not feel safe driving around to find the parking lot due to the traffic jam created by this project. If this project is built, I will need security guards to escort me back to my house.”

This week, we received news that Viet-AID has received zoning veriance on the votes of 4-1 so the project is continuing.

Nonetheless, this occurance shed more lights for me on how complicating the issue of assistance for low-income people is. In Vietnamese culture, one can only settle down when one has his own family and his own house. In American culture, it is the American dream to owe a house. Thus, there is no gap here. The gap that I saw on this Tuesday was the complex interactions between races and class. From what I read and talked to the people, the biggest under the surface reason that the Fields Corner neighborhoods does not want to have to deal with another group of low-income people who are mostly immigrants and not fit with the mainstream. Viet-AID has taken tremendous steps to modify the projects according to the inputs from the community but they are still unable to change the people’s mindset. Another thing is that Viet-AID was not able to mobilize a larger support of Vietnamese-American residents to call up their representatives and show up to support the project. Many reasons work in this lack of participation include the language barrier, the overworked people who are more concerned with making their ends met (almost all Vietnamese-owned business work more than 65 hours per week), the insecurity that immigrants naturally have since they might not necessarily feel like American is their country, etc.

I don’t live within this community but from my interaction with the Vietnamese community in Dorchester for the past 3 weeks, I can sense their hopes and fear as they conduct their lives and business in the country that they newly adopted.

Bloomfield Garden before construction
Picture: Bloomfield Garden before Construction