As inequality and segregation run rampant through Boston, the time for sustainable and thorough solutions is quickly coming to a close. The income and benefits that ride on the coattails of being an economic hub are historically unfairly distributed, while traditionally disenfranchised minorities are forced to face the brunt of crud these business choices drag with them. If nothing is done, we risk losing the heart of what makes Boston so special: Its people.
Cue JP Progressives. JP Progressives are a group of Jamaica Plains-ites (Plainians?) who share common beliefs such as equality for all, access to basic rights, shared prosperity, community building, and support for an ethical and accountable government. It is with these ideals in mind that the JP Progressives hosted a forum to discuss the meaning of progressive housing. The forum consisted of 4 panelists from various facets of housing and planning, each given about twenty minutes to present their progressive topic along with a concise call to action. While all in attendance were there for the shared goal of providing and protecting affordable housing in Boston, the path towards this shared goal led to heated discussions; the type needed to make any kind of real progress towards an answer.
A bit of context before we jump into the panelists’ points. Much of the discussion had here and overall when speaking of housing revolves a topic called AMI, or Average Median Income. A crude way to think about it is if you were to line up all households in the area from rich to poor, the AMI would be the household income of the house in the exact middle. According to Boston.gov, Boston’s AMI in 2015 ranges from $68,950 for a one person household up to $114,250 for a five person household. The general guidelines set forth dictate that households that make less than 80% of the AMI are low-income, less than 50% as very low-income, and less than 30% as extremely low-income. Another relevant concept is that of being cost-burdened. This has to do with how much of your monthly income is going towards housing costs; more than 30% qualifies you as Cost Burdened and more than 50% as Severely Cost Burdened.
Got it? Ok. Let’s break em down.
Barry Bluestone, Dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University
First to present was Mr. Bluestone. This is not the first time I’ve come across Barry at city housing events, and I have a feeling it won’t be the last. The ideas and plans set forth by Mr. Bluestone follow one controversial idea: build a 21st century “millennial village” in the city proper. Imagine an upscale housing complex filled with high-quantity micro-units, drawing an audience of grad students and single professionals. Mr. Bluestone started the presentation with a small history lesson outlining the migration out of the city to the suburbs of the working class, to present day, when young people are waiting longer to get married and start families while moving back into the city. With housing so expensive, it is unattainable for the single student/professional to get a place of their own, so they partner up with a group of 3, 4, or 5 others and rent out the triple-decker units outside the city in places like JP. With landlords now able to charge exorbitant rents to four people instead of a reasonable, attainable rent to a family, areas are being overrun with students and young professionals. Household incomes rise, raising taxes and property values, and effectively pushing out the people who have made the area what it is. Mr. Bluestone argues that in a time where building anything in Boston is so expensive per sq. ft, anything built as affordable housing just is not feasible, even with the most altruistic and positive teams out there. Mr. Bluestone reasons that if we can build these multi-unit millennial housing buildings and get universities to sign longterm contracts to subsidize them, the city can free up the already standing infrastructure of triple-deckers for who they are meant for: low-income families.
Learn more about Mr. Bluestone and his team’s ideas here.
Nathalie Janson, Development Associate and Kuehn Fellow at the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH)
Ms. Janson came at the issue from a different angle. The city, she argues, is not doing enough to enable and preserve the affordability of units in the city. As it stands, housing restrictions mandate that two units in any new buildings must be reserved for low-income renters. However, 43% of Boston’s households are rent-burdened, with only 1/5 of the units in the city being rent controlled. These staggering numbers outline the issue in a drastic manner, and show a worrisome trend towards worsening inequality, unless action is taken now. More effort needs to be put from a city level towards changing the amount and quality of support for the housing crisis. Things like tax credits from the federal level and grants/loans from the state level are a start, but are often not effective enough, especially when based on broad statistics that do not accurately depict the struggling nature of certain areas in Boston. Ms. Janson pleads for more effort from citizens to push for municipal action for checks and balances to protect the people and spirit of the communities we live in.
Learn more about Ms. Janson and the goals of POAH.
Lisa Owens, Executive Director at City Life/Vida Urbana
In case you’ve never heard of City Life/Vida Urbana, it is “…a 44 year old bilingual, community organization whose mission is to fight for racial, social and economic justice and gender equality by building working class power through direct action, coalition building, education and advocacy.” Ms. Owens began with an audience survey. What percent of Boston is comprised of people of color? 55%. Roxbury? 80%. Mattapan is 90%, East Boston, 67%, and JP at 67%. However if you take a look at these communities, between 55-75% of the people in them are rent-burdened. 55-75% of these communities must make the choice between food OR childcare OR personal healthcare. This is the America we are living in, and unless the right people step up to make a change, nothing will. The current policies meant to help or balance the crisis are not working; the numbers show this. More housing in any form, she mentions in retort to Mr. Bluestone’s earlier points, is not the answer. These people cannot wait for the benefits to trickle down, not anymore. The people who live in the communities affected need to be the ones making the policies, as they are the only ones who understand the true speed and impact these choices can have. The focus, Ms. Owens says, should start around zoning policies. The city is currently treating the issue as a one-size-fits-all solution, when in fact, the systems and decisions are much more complex and nuanced. Progressive housing policy arms those affected with the power to make change.
Lydia Edwards, City Councilor
As Boston City Councilor for East Boston and the North End, Ms. Edwards is conscious of the social and economic issues present in our communities, and has proudly taken on the fight for the rights of tenants, while enabling landlords to maintain their properties ansd rights. With her time on the panel, Ms. Edwards used her voice to speak on her solutions to the issues presented, including a transfer fee imposed on landowners to prevent/slow down property flipping, amendments on zoning rules, and a focus on the Homes Act (an act to remove the stigma on evicted tenants, an often overlooked side effect of the drastically increasing rent prices across the city.) She echoed the other panelists’ outcry against the millennial villages proposed by Mr. Bluestone, stating that rents have not gone down as we are forced to watch more luxury housing go up all around us. She aims to make Suffolk Downs, the 161-acre development site being converted from horse racing track to housing units, a template on how to implement affordable and progressive housing. Her goal aims to plan the new development to enable surrounding East Boston residents to live sustainably within the 30% AMI level of their own community, as opposed to using skewed and generalized numbers that may enable higher rents. Ms. Edwards rounds her ideas out by emphasizing that markets cannot fix racism, classism, and historic injustices that the communities in question have faced.
Learn more about Ms. Edwards approach to progressive housing here.
The panel left me with questions as tough as the ones they aimed to answer. On the surface, the points made by all make sense, yet conflicted at times. As a single working resident living in Jamaica Plain with roommates, I realize I am part of the issue, and therefore desperately looking for a concrete solution. And while I don’t like the sound of a “millennial village,” it would be a relatively affordable way to clear my kind out of the triple-deckers meant for families at a time when I can’t justify anyone my age paying for the exorbitant housing anywhere else in the city after student loans have had their way. This, however, is too long-term, too ideal, and overall just a policy made from the comfort of not having to deal with the issues first hand and in real-time. Part of me also questions how much grant money POAH and Ms. Janson presume they can secure from municipalities, and would that amount come close to what the city needs to make an impact? When do we start looking for more radical, efficient answers? Taxes to prevent flipping sounds nice, but won’t these taxes just get passed on to renters, effectively negating their power as a deterrent? If progressive policy means that the people affected need to make the changes, why are people of color all but non-existent at this event? How can we get elevate the people affected to policy-changing positions?
The questions are tough, and the answers will almost assuredly not be unanimous. So in a time where there only seem to be questions with more questions as answers, what do we do?
Inform yourselves, and vote appropriately. Know the ideas and policies, know the opposition, and employ a knowledgeable and empathetic approach to help create a society you want to pass forward.
Images in the order they appear:
JP Progressive: https://www.jamaicaplainnews.com/2019/04/25/what-is-a-progressive-position-on-housing
AMI infographic: https://www.boston.gov/sites/default/files/affordable-housing-boston.pdf
Barry Bluestone: https://cssh.northeastern.edu/people/faculty/barry-bluestone/
Nathalie Janson: https://www.poah.org/team/janson-nathalie
Lisa Owens: http://www.clvu.org/peoples_plan_assembly_photos
Lydia Edwards: https://lydiaedwards.org/about/policy/c/4