Gov. Candidate, Ash Tour Box District

City Manager Jay Ash gave the good word to Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker Wednesday morning after accompanying the Republican on a friendly tour of The Neighborhood Developers’ Box District development and its CONNECT educational facility.

Ash told reporters he looked forward to seeing Baker become governor.

“I’m not allowed as a City Manager to endorse,” he said. “However, I have known Charlie [Baker] for 20 years and greatly respect his work and everything he’s done. I’m looking forward to Governor Baker and seeing what great things he can do for the Commonwealth.”

Prior that that, Baker spent about 45 minutes taking a guided tour through the Box District – learning about the mix of affordable units with market-rate units from TND Executive Director Ann Houston.

Also on the tour and speaking about the market rate portion was Tanya Hahnel of Mitchell Properties, which has developed the market rate portion of the Box District.

Mollie Baldwin, a resident of the Box District and executive director of ROCA, also was on the tour.

All were amenable to Baker and answered his questions about how it was that the community came together to make the Box District a success.

Baker asked questions about whether land banking was a problem in the early days of the development, whether parking restrictions were adequate, and how well the state process worked in delivering resources to the affordable housing developments.

He was also keenly interested in the clean up process, particularly how the environmental/contamination issues were solved.

He said he was interested in that because he recognizes that most of the vacant land in cities like Chelsea are polluted sites near mass transit.

“This is a great example of multi-use affordable housing programs that I think we should be doing even more of,” he said. “There are a lot of places like the Box District all over the state and we need to do more of this…We need more market-based affordable housing. Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and Chelsea – they all have huge tracts of properties near public transit that is often owned by the state or local government. That’s the best chance for this that these communities are going to find.”

Baker said he wanted to see a good example of affordable and market rate housing in Chelsea, and Ash put together the tour of the Box District.

Ash said he wanted to showcase the district for Baker because it destroyed the notion among developers that too much affordable housing ruins a market-rate development. Sitting at about 50-50, Ash said, the District remains in harmony.

“A real misnomer we had to deal with in the developer community was the belief that you couldn’t develop a large amount of affordable housing with a large amount of market rate,” he said. “Some 25 percent was the most they would consider before and they thought anything above that would begin to have a negative impact on the market rate development. This development is 51 percent versus 49 percent. It reversed that notion.”

Another stop on the tour was the CONNECT center – which focuses on job training, education and household skills like budgeting/saving.

The CONNECT is a combination of organizations in Chelsea and out of Chelsea that have combined efforts in a wing of TND’s headquarters to help residents attain self-sufficiency through job training and life skills. It is supported primarily by the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston and a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor – among others.

Baker was particularly interested int he fact that CONNECT works with people who have less than a high school education, often having dropped out in middle school or before. Houston said there often are no resources for them, but CONNECT has allowed those folks to access education and job training services all in one location.

She told him that those who bundle services, meaning they use one or more services at CONNECT, are moving on a pathway to success around 75 percent of the time.

Ash told Baker that the model of housing and job training in one development tract is what truly makes the Box District much different than any other place.

“What I particularly like about this model and about how TND does things is that they focus on housing people and making them self-sufficient,” he said. “A lot of times we stop everything after we house people. With this, we are getting people housing and continuing with getting them job-ready and being able to provide for their families in the housing that has been provided.”

The tour ended congenially, with Ash telling reporters that – short of endorsing Baker – he encourages its victory.

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