Three weeks ago I went to the monthly meeting of the Codman Square Neighborhood Council where two developers were presenting competing proposals for a city-owned lot between Codman Square and the Fairmount Line. In those two proposals lay very different futures for Dorchester.
Developer 1 wanted to put eight townhouses, 44 apartments, retail, parking, and a roof garden on the site. Eight of the apartments would be “affordable,” with one-bedrooms about $1,250 a month and two-bedrooms about $1,300. Private investors would finance the project and construction would start as soon as the city decided to sell them the land.
Developer 2 would build 6 townhouses, 40 apartments, retail, parking, and a roof deck. All the apartments would be “affordable,” with rents about the same as in the other proposal. Financing for all that affordable housing would come from state, federal, and city programs that take time to line up, delaying construction.
The architects’ drawings for the proposals looked almost identical, and so did the plans, except for one thing. Developer 1 would rush new housing onto the market. Developer 2 would take longer, but there would be 32 more affordable apartments.
What’s better for the neighborhood?
Right now City Hall is pushing for speed. Mayor Martin Walsh sees the housing crisis as a supply and demand problem. If we build enough housing, the demand will weaken and prices will come down. Walsh has focused on this and the results are impressive: New housing is going up all over.
The city is pushing as much new housing onto the market as it can because it thinks housing is a supply and demand problem. Housing is scarce. There are more renters and buyers for the available units. If we can build enough new units, the theory says, the demand pressure will go down and prices will level off. It doesn’t matter if most of those units are beyond the reach of the average Boston worker. You just need to flood the market and meet the demand.
Unfortunately, the market can’t be flooded. There isn’t enough vacant land in Boston to meet today’s demand. Jobs are growing, the city’s population is rising, and people with more money are going to outbid lower-income workers for the housing that’s there. The best you can do with new housing is to slow down the rise in pricing.
The city’s hands are half-tied here. Most of the money for new construction is in private hands. Federal support for affordable housing is vanishing, state funds are limited, and the city has little money of its own. However, the city does have some tools in its hands.
It could push developers to build more affordable units. The Inclusionary Development Policy requires developers to either build affordable housing or pay into the city’s affordable housing fund. The city recently raised the percentage of units that have to be affordable, but other cities’ percentages are higher.
It could improve the definition of “affordable.” Today’s definition is based on Area Median Income, and the official “Area” is not just Boston but our wealthier suburbs. The result: The official AMI is way above the average income in Boston or Dorchester. The result of that: the “affordable” units we’re building aren’t affordable for maybe half of Dorchester’s residents. Another result: People at the high end of that “affordable” range are competing with people at the lower end for a too-small number of apartments.
It could make better use of city-owned land. City Hall can’t dictate what gets built on private parcels, but a lot of new developments are going up on parcels the city controls. Those parcels belong to us, the citizens of Boston. The City could hold onto them until 100 percent affordable housing proposals come along. That way, the land we own will go for housing that’s within reach of Dorchester’s majority.
These policies are worth a serious look. They could slow down displacement. “Market rate” housing and luxury housing come with a hidden price. Their higher rent and sale prices can spill over into the existing housing stock. They set a new norm for the neighborhood, and they bring in people who can pay that new norm. “If you want affordable housing,” housing economist Jim Campen says, “you have to build affordable housing.”
Besides these ideas, there’s a whole other set of solutions that the city has more power to implement. Our affordability crisis has two parts: existing housing and new construction. We’ve been talking about new construction. But existing housing is more important because that’s where people live now. If you want to keep people in their homes, you focus on existing housing.
Mayor Walsh has set up an Office of Housing Stability to help people stay in their homes. That’s great, but it could be more ambitious. In many parts of the city, speculators are raising rents and clearing entire buildings so they can flip or convert them. Most tenants don’t know they can say “no.” How about a citywide campaign to tell tenants what their rights are? That would keep hundreds of families in their homes and slow the neighborhood turnover rate. How about doing the same for homeowners facing foreclosure? Right now, a handful of community organizations are doing this job, and that’s ridiculous in a city with a displacement crisis like ours.
The City Council also needs to step up to the plate. No, make that “get into the ballpark,” because when it comes to displacement the Council is missing in action. It’s good they’re considering the Community Preservation Act, a small tax to fund affordable housing. But it’ll be funny, in a sick way, if they pass that property tax increase while blocking the most milquetoast of reforms, Just Cause Evictions. C’mon! How about doing something real, like limiting condo conversions? Or – to break a taboo – reenacting rent control?
There, I said the untouchable words. But let’s face reality. We need some way to control runaway rents and housing prices if we’re going to hold onto the community we have. Our unequal economy is clearing lower-income people and people of color out of Dorchester far more efficiently than urban renewal ever could.
We’re at a crossroads. We can agree that housing is more than private property, more than an asset to be flipped and traded for as much money as possible. Some things, like community, are more important than money. Remember, tenants are almost two-thirds of Dorchester’s residents. What happens to tenancy will shape our community.
Or we can watch as Dorchester becomes much wealthier, whiter, and high turnover, like South Boston, the South End, and now Roxbury. We can watch as the people who keep the city running move out to the suburbs and add multi-hour commutes to the two and three jobs they’re already working. When it’s all over – it’ll be sooner than you think – our three-deckers and Victorian single-families will still be here.
But Dorchester will be gone.