NAACP gives Walsh low marks; mayor ‘respectfully disagrees’

On issues of race and housing, Mayor Martin Walsh and mayoral hopeful City Councillor Tito Jackson are reckoning with citywide inequities and an asymmetrical upsurge in prosperity, taking time just two weeks from the general election to justify their stances and lay out a path forward.

The Walsh administration faced a blistering critique of its efforts to address disparities for people of color from the Boston chapter of the NAACP, which issued a report card over the weekend. The almost 200-page report, incorporating city data, concluded that the past three years have generally seen at most a C (incremental improvement) or a D (no change in the current condition) in the main areas of increasing educational outcomes, providing employment, providing access to housing, and improving public safety in communities of color.

Among other concerns, the report assserted, Boston has not seen enough progress in diversifying staff in police, fire, or other city agencies.

In a statement this week, Walsh said his office needs to review the report, adding, “however we respectfully disagree with the grades given. While there is always room for improvement, we are very proud of what we have been able to accomplish over the past four years, from creating opportunities for minority and women owned businesses, to building affordable housing for all income levels, to adding over 700 pre-kindergarten seats to expand early learning opportunities.”

In the televised debate Tuesday night, Jackson said that the mayor’s response to the NAACP critique was to “dismiss” the civil rights organization’s concerns by “not actually taking into account what’s going on there.”

An area of pointed censure in the report — and also a key priority in Walsh’s administration— is housing equity. Polls on the race consistently find housing to be a chief concern across all income categories, races, ages, and educational levels. A recent WGBH poll found that 26 percent of Bostonians believe the cost of housing is the biggest issue facing the city. That number jumps to 38 percent among black respondents.

The NAACP report gave the Walsh administration’s overall Economic Development situation a D grade. It served as the umbrella category over employment — C for effort and D for results; affordable housing — B for effort and D for results; the Minority Business Enterprises program — B for effort and F for results; and corporate accountability — F for effort and D for results.

As to housing, the report credits Walsh with a “modest increase” in efforts for his housing goals, including improving inclusionary development policy, recently raised to 15-18 percent affordable building requirements. Jackson said his administration will raise the requirement to 25 percent.

But the report takes issue with the city definition of “affordability,” and says that the supply of affordable housing is not meeting demand, nor are there clear approaches in place that would address the issue.

The Walsh administration quibbled with a few notes in the report, including the assertion that “only 2.3 percent [of housing units constructed] were affordable,” which depends on the definition used.

Of the 21,955 units permitted to date, 9 percent are deed restricted to “extremely low- and low-income” households; 9.5 percent to “middle income” households, between $50,000 and $72,000 in annual income, and 22 percent are “market rate units, accessible to middle income households.”  

The mayor’s office notes that 48 percent of households with incomes between $35,000 and $50,000 are minority households, and many of the households are considered rent burdened. 

Jackson and Walsh also during the week to a survey distributed by 11 housing organizations, addressing topics including strengthening the city’s housing stock, funding affordable housing and affordability standards in general, homelessness prevention, and stabilizing neighborhoods.
One central question that arose in the survey, and in Tuesday night’s debate, was how to stabilize rents.

Jackson wrote, “Rent stabilization is key to protecting the residents of Boston… I would look at initiatives such as requiring landlords to submit to mediation for rent increases over 5 percent.”

Walsh wrote: “Recognizing that re-establishing rent control is unlikely, Boston’s affordable housing community has focused on increasing the availability of income-restricted affordable housing units.”

On distributing proportions of city-owned property to affordable housing, Jackson promises a minimum of one third of the total units for households who are under 30 percent of area median income, and one third of the total units for households who are 31 to 60 percent of area median income. Walsh notes that the city often requires “significantly more” than those metrics, or prioritizes considerations like open space and amenities as determined by the community.

Both candidates praised the passage of the Jim Brooks Stabilization Act, which secures protections from arbitrary evictions.

In 30 pages of collective answers, Jackson and Walsh acknowledged the increasing housing pressures in Boston, particularly to families of color and lower-income households.

The division between them — Walsh pointing to successful existing planning practices and Jackson vowing to tear up the institutional planning book and home in on equity — is one voters will parse on Nov. 7.

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