Development projects in Boston could soon be reviewed for housing discrimination and displacement of tenants before they win city approval, just like they are for design, traffic, and environmental issues.
The City Council is set to vote Wednesday on changes to Boston’s zoning code that would require the Boston Planning & Development Agency to study a project’s impact on housing costs and essentially ask who gets to live in the new development, as part of the agency’s typical project review. If approved by the council and other city boards, the rules — which have the support of Mayor Martin J. Walsh — could go into effect early next year.
The effort, led by some members of the City Council and hammered out over 18 months of talks with the Walsh administration, is intended to address a central critique of Boston’s recent building boom: Concerns that much of the new housing is unaffordable for many Boston residents, and may in effect be pushing them out of the city. Developers will now be asked how they plan to address potential displacement and how they might ease, rather than worsen, divisions of race and class when it comes to housing.
“To reverse the exclusionary housing practices of the past that have kept families of color from accessing safe and secure housing and building generational wealth, we must support aggressive new housing policies that promote equity and fairness,” Walsh said in a statement. “By adopting affirmative fair housing requirements into our zoning code, and asking our developers to do more to fight displacement and create housing for all, Boston will serve as the national leader on fair housing practices.”
Indeed, city officials say Boston would be the first major US city to adopt these kinds of rules. They stem from an Obama-era add-on to the 1968 Fair Housing Act encouraging cities not just to prevent overt housing discrimination but to work to reduce it. That regulation was undone by President Trump, and featured prominently in his reelection campaign as a warning of how it could force affordable housing on unwilling suburbs.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who championed the measure along with colleague Kenzie Bok, said it’s especially important in a city like Boston, with its deep historical divisions along racial and economic lines and whole new neighborhoods like the Seaport that have been built largely for the well-off.
“We’re telling developers who come into a neighborhood that they need to come up with ways to help heal the community,” she said. “That’s your obligation now.”
Specifically, new project filings with the BPDA would have to include data on current rents and demographics of a neighborhood, and analyze what impact the project could have on them — much like BPDA-required transportation and environmental studies do.
In some cases, developers could be required to perhaps add more affordable housing or more units large enough for families. They could also be asked to fund affordable units nearby or agree to rules encouraging owner-occupied housing.
These sort of agreements are not unusual during BPDA review, but are typically made on a project-by-project basis, sometimes in response to neighborhood pressure. The plan being voted on Wednesday would standardize them across the city, and send a signal to developers that these issues are a priority for an agency that has historically focused more on encouraging commercial development than dealing with thorny questions related to who gets to live where in Boston.
“This plants a very firm flag that the BPDA wants to make sure we’re dealing with issues like displacement and exclusion every day,” said Jon Greeley, the BPDA’s director of development review.
The regulations were crafted with the cooperation of real estate trade groups, which made some suggestions for technical changes, but generally support the end result. Tamara Small, president of NAIOP Massachusetts — which represents commercial developers — said laying out rules of the road helps everyone.
“We want to ensure as an industry that we’re creating thriving communities,” Small said. “This does lay out a clear and predictable process, which is something we thought was absolutely critical.”
If approved by the City Council, the regulations will need the OK of the BPDA board and the city’s zoning commission — both of which are largely appointed by Walsh — and would apply to projects filed early next year. Some developers with large projects already underway — such as the enormous Suffolk Downs complex in Edwards’ East Boston district — have already agreed in principle to follow the proposed regulations.
Over time, Edwards said, they have the potential to change the way Boston gets built, by putting issues of discrimination and displacement at the front of conversations about development plans.
“Planners and developers and people who are in the business of building cities have an obligation to follow civil rights laws,” Edwards said. “And that obligation is met at the start, when you plan [a project]. You must be intentional about this.”