Upcoming meetings of the JPNC Whole Foods ad hoc committee

Scheduled meetings are as follows:

Thursday, May 12 7 PM at the First Baptist Church
Monday, May 16 7 PM Anna Mae Cole Community Room at Bromley Heath
Thursday, May 26 7 PM location TBA

Questions? email us at info@jpnc.org

One response to “Upcoming meetings of the JPNC Whole Foods ad hoc committee”

  1. I agree with Senator Chang-Diaz (in her thoughtful letter published in the May 13 JP Gazette) that the most troubling potential consequence of Whole Food’s coming to its proposed JP location is the “risk of displacing long-time JP families and their neighbors, both renters and homeowners” due to rapidly rising property taxes and rents attributable to increased property values.
    If the opponents are wrong in their predictions of an inevitable rapid increase in residential property values, then of course there’s no reason for worry. The Fenway area, which has long been home to a Whole Foods, has remained one of the less expensive housing districts in downtown Boston, and the neighborhood surrounding the Prospect Street Whole Foods in Cambridge does not appear to have become especially affluent or among the more costly areas of that (generally expensive) city. So perhaps, rather than giving rise to an immutable economic “law of gentrification”, true for all times and places, the proximity of a Whole Foods, at least in some cities and neighborhoods, is just one of many factors prospective buyers and renters consider in choosing where to live. There’s also something surreal about getting up in arms at the prospect of rising property values during one of the longest and steepest real estate recessions in our history, a time when most homeowners in JP, as elsewhere, are likely to be feeling somewhere between depressed and frantic over the decline in the value of their homes. Still, the recession presumably won’t last forever, and Whole Foods tendency to raise neighboring property values is apparently so pervasive that there’s actually a widely-used term for it – the so-called “Whole Foods Effect.” So there’s clearly some basis for opponents’ predictions of escalating home values.

    If, then, the opponents are right, the advent of a Whole Foods has the same power to increase the attractiveness of a community to prospective buyers and renters as does, say, introducing public transportation for the first time or creating nice parks and playgrounds or dramatically improving the local schools. (Some opponents seem to believe Whole Foods has the same drawing power as all of these combined!) Public transport, high quality schools and pleasant parks and playgrounds fill needs of existing residents, but, like a Whole Foods (or any quality grocery), they are among the amenities that also make a neighborhood more widely attractive to others as a place to live. And therefore, just like adding a Whole Foods, adding any such amenity to a neighborhood tends to make its housing more expensive, with the attendant risk that some current residents will be forced to leave. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone opposing school improvements or new playgrounds or bus lines solely on the ground that they’re likely to have the incidental effect of making the neighborhood unaffordable for some current residents. So there must be something else behind the opposition to Whole Foods, either instead of or in addition to any tendency it may have to promote increased property values.

    As Sen. Chang-Diaz notes, rising property values are generally considered a desirable thing. That’s not just because they evidence more, well-distributed, wealth, but because they’re one of the best markers of an increasing neighborhood quality of life. More affluent homeowners and renters tend to make for a more vibrant and robust commercial and retail life That’s what every city and neighborhood proclaims it aspires to achieve. If a mere supermarket can do as much to invigorate a neighborhood’s commercial and retail life as new bus or subway lines and good schools and attractive parks—and do it without any outlay of public funds — then surely one ought to have a very sound reason for opposing it. I find it difficult to understand the apparent assumption of Whole Foods opponents that certain large segments of JP’s population are so completely isolated from the local economy that they’ll be wholly unable to benefit from its rejuvenation, especially in their capacities as providers of goods and services.

    In assessing the potential for hardship due to rising property values, we need to note the distinctions between owners and renters. Owners obviously do not go uncompensated when their property values rise. Owners of multi-family homes presumably receive higher rents. Single-family homeowners who are unable to keep up with taxes sell at prices higher than they otherwise could have expected and may be able to satisfactorily re-locate while keeping some of their money in the bank. Indeed, some homeowners may see and seize an opportunity for a windfall profit. The more dramatic the Whole Foods Effect turns out to be, the more common such opportunities will be. One leader of the Whole Foods opposition cites as a cautionary example of the Whole Foods Effect a Washington D.C. resident named Dickson, whose home, worth $230,000 in 1986, is now in 2011 assessed at $1.6 million, after a Whole Foods arrived around the year 2000. Never mind that it took 25 years for that appreciation in value to occur, 10 of which represented one of the greatest real estate bubbles in US history, when homes throughout the country were doubling, tripling and more in short order. Never mind that it’s now over 10 years since that D.C. Whole Foods opened. And never mind a host of other unaddressed factors that may have played a role in this remarkable appreciation in value. Let’s just accept the opponent’s suggestion that the increase was overwhelmingly attributable to the arrival of a Whole Foods. Who indeed would wish a fate like Mr. Dickson’s on any of our Hyde Square or other JP neighbors! To Hyde Square and other JP homeowners the Whole Foods opponents seem to be in effect saying: “We care about you, and to make sure none of you are forced out of JP by rising property taxes, we’re going to make sure none of your homes run any such risk of substantially increasing in value.”

    The group that stands to be hurt without receiving any direct compensatory benefit is non-transient renters. This group deserves protection – but not just from Whole Foods, but because of its continual vulnerability to a wide range of changes. What does it matter to a family if the rent increases that are forcing them out are attributable to the advent of a widely popular new grocery store (which perhaps they themselves can’t afford to shop in) or to the creation of a new bus line or the upgrading of a local school (neither of which perhaps is of the least personal benefit to them)? To protect the most vulnerable of such renters against housing dislocations whatever the source is one of the purposes of having adequate affordable housing. It therefore seems to me that Sen. Chang-Diaz is looking in the right direction when, instead of opposing Whole Foods outright, she proposes asking it to participate in mitigating a potential specific detriment it may cause.

    How would I like to be forced to sell my condo and move, even at a substantial profit? I wouldn’t. But, as a retired person who one day may need to move for reasons of health or family, neither would I like to become trapped in my present apartment because some members of my community, for reasons of their own, have kept my property value so artificially low that I can’t afford to sell. Everything we do that makes a neighborhood more attractive will have unintended adverse consequences for some residents, like running the risk of driving some of them out due to increased property values. Everything we do to keep a neighborhood from becoming “too” attractive will likewise have unintended negative consequences, like running the risk of driving residents out due to a diminishing opportunity to earn a living in an economically stagnant community. Every course of action, whether it succeeds in promoting change or resisting it, has its unintended casualties. Few of us are immune from injury in one form or another and who the casualties (and beneficiaries) really turn out to be can be quite surprising.

    I said earlier that there has to be something motivating Whole Foods opponents in addition to the risk of some current residents becoming priced out of the neighborhood. I remember one opponent writing something like “It comes down to what we want this community to look like in 10 years.” If it’s in fact true that the families most at risk of being displaced are Latino or other minority residents, then that compounds the fundamental evil of anyone being displaced at all. I think having racial, cultural, national, ethnic and other diversity within a community, especially at this particular time in the life of these United States, is an enormously important social value, not to mention invigorating and fun. But I don’t wish to purchase the diversity around me at the expense of those who provide it. And that, it seems to me, is what opponents of Whole Foods are, in effect though certainly not by intent, seeking to do. In order to avoid a risk that some portion of one of JP’s minority communities will be driven out, they would deny to the remainder of that minority community, and to the community at large, the possibility of taking a significant step toward achieving the kind of prosperity that all communities typically seek to build. Stopping a neighborhood from improving and prospering may well be an effective policy for keeping it diverse (so long as the “diversifying faction” remains relatively poor). But it does not seem to me a rational policy. The more I’ve thought about the strategy of Whole Foods opponents the more it reminds me of the old US military slogan in Vietnam: We’re going to have to destroy the village to save it.

    Marc Grossman

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