There are lobster rolls for $36, lattes for $6, an abstract outdoor sculpture meant to evoke primordial trees, and, of course, lots of modern housing developments featuring stunning panoramas of Boston Harbor.
This is not your parents’ East Boston.
Pricey development continues to rapidly transform this neighborhood, long known as a landing pad for immigrants but drawing more affluent white-collar workers and students by the day. Over the last decade, luxury high rises have sprouted along the once-industrial waterfront while broader upheaval has more quietly changed Eastie’s interior — a surge of money, property values, and developer activity that has the neighborhood’s working-class residents worried they won’t be able to hang on.
“Gentrification is destroying the community,” said Noemy Rodriguez, a single mother of three, originally from El Salvador, who is facing the prospect of eviction in East Boston because she cannot pay her increased rent. “The elite are the people with the money — they come here and this creates huge impacts on us. It’s damaging.”
Mayor Michelle Wu has vowed to help, recently saying that her administration will focus on better planning for Eastie’s waterfront. But some in the community say more urgent state action is required to protect tenants from displacement.
“We need action now, or it’s going to be too late,” said Gabriela Cartagena, a community organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana, a tenants rights advocacy group.
More than 2,300 new housing units — including 580 affordable ones — have mushroomed along the shoreline in the past decade amid Boston’s unprecedented building boom, according to the Boston Planning & Development Agency. The median home value in East Boston’s ZIP code skyrocketed more than 150 percent over the same period, rising to about $609,000 from $237,000 a decade ago, according to estimates from Zillow. In the last year alone, home values increased about 11 percent.
“These buildings are not built for us. They are built for people with money,” Rodriguez said of East Boston’s luxury housing units.
The neighborhood is the first rung on the ladder of the American dream for many immigrants, and has been for generations. And many of those first-generation Bostonians are afraid it’s slipping away.
Eliandra Araujo came to East Boston in 2005, wanting a better life than the one offered in Minas Gerais state of her native Brazil. When she arrived, living in Eastie, where roughly one-third of the population are not US citizens, was affordable. Her main concern now is the rent. She does not want to leave. She’s not sure where she would go.
“I love East Boston,” Araujo said through an interpreter.
Before the pandemic, Araujo was paying $1,400 for a 1½-bedroom in a nondescript apartment building on one of Eastie’s main drags. The building was sold in early 2021 for more than $1 million, according to records, and the new owner tried to raise her rent to $2,000, Araujo said.
She organized the tenants in the other two apartments in the building into a tenant association and enlisted City Life/Vida Urbana to help negotiate with the new owner. The action paid off for Araujo, a single mother of a 7-year-old boy; she now pays $1,550 a month. But both of her upstairs neighbors moved out, opting to return to Brazil rather than stay and pay a higher rent.
“Five, 10 years ago this wasn’t happening,” said Araujo, who cleans offices in Eastie and downtown after hours.
She said she has nothing against new people moving into the neighborhood’s higher-end developments, but she fears being priced out ― and feels her current way of life is being threatened.
“It’s good for the city, but it’s not for the residents of the neighborhood,” Araujo said of the luxury waterfront developments.
East Boston’s waterfront face lift has pumped up property values throughout the neighborhood. That has meant live-in landlords who used to rent to working-class people are now looking to cash out to hungry developers, said Abdi Ali, a 31-year-old community organizer whose family landed in East Boston in 2005, when he was 15, fleeing civil war in Somalia.
East Boston, with its close access to the Blue Line, meant they could get around without a car. Ali and his relatives worked various jobs: some at the airport or in hospitals, others as taxi drivers.
“The community was vibrant and diverse,” recalled Ali. Now, gentrification has attracted “more affluent people,” he said.
Eastie’s waterfront development is not the only factor driving gentrification, advocates say. Smaller developers continue to buy triple-deckers and other homes and flip them, sometimes selling them as condominiums, other times rehabbing them and renting them at higher prices. The end result is a neighborhood that is less welcoming to immigrants, some say.
Albert F. Caldarelli, executive director of the East Boston Community Development Corporation, said new luxury developments have failed to provide true affordable housing, despite all the rhetoric. In too many instances, he said, “affordable” means 80 percent of median income, which can translate to a rent of more than $2,000 for a three bedroom, according to the Boston Planning & Development Agency. That’s not good enough for some families who are scraping by.
“It was all a fraud,” Caldarelli said.
For Ali, people aren’t only being priced out, but increasing numbers feel uncomfortable with the neighborhood’s shifting demographics.
After renting for years, Ali was able to purchase a home, but he still worries East Boston is losing its diversity and its sense of neighborhood. He wants to see an array of policies put in place to combat gentrification: more truly affordable units, which someone making $30,000 a year can afford to occupy. And rent control to stabilize housing costs so fewer people spend most of their paychecks on keeping a roof over their heads.
There are too many East Boston residents, he said, “afraid of making sure they meet the needs of their family and if you’re constantly thinking about that, that’s not healthy.”
The Wu administration is pointing to a raft of proposals that could help stem the displacement tide. The mayor recently announced members of a committee she’s formed to study rent stabilization, a small step in her greater push to bring rent control back to Boston, a goal that faces long odds and would require the Legislature to get on board. Wu also has pushed a proposal to tax high-dollar real estate transactions to raise money to fund affordable housing — another initiative that requires State House approval. In another attempt to address affordable housing, Wu has committed to update the city’s commercial linkage fees — payments developers make into a fund for affordable housing and job training — and in December she announced her administration will assess how Boston can reach or exceed 20 percent affordability in new construction, up from the current 13 percent. She says she welcomes a neighborhood planning process that expands affordable housing options.
Even if they do have promise, Wu’s plans feel a long way out for Rodriguez,, the single mother of three, who is unable to afford her new, higher rent.
She said she asked her landlord to fix some issues in the apartment — cockroaches and mice were a problem, she said, the fire alarms were antiquated, and there was mold on a wall, among other issues. Rodriguez called a city inspector last summer, who found eight problems that needed to be fixed, she recalled.
Her requests infuriated the property owner, she said, and soon after he told her to leave the three-bedroom unit in the Eagle Hill neighborhood. Then he reversed course, and offered her a six-month extension while she looked for another place, according to a letter provided by Rodriguez and reviewed by the Globe. As a condition of staying, however, the landlord raised her rent by $350, to $2,200 — an amount Rodriguez said she can’t afford.
The extension ends at the end of this month. Rodriguez plans to fight to stay.
Attempts by the Globe to reach her landlord were not successful. City authorities said they have not received notification of a notice-to-quit, the first step in an eviction, for Rodriguez’s address during the last two years, and a housing court database shows no active cases for Rodriguez.
Rodriguez came to the United States in 2007, fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, where she hoped to become a lawyer. She has lived in East Boston since 2012 and works part time as a community organizer, she said.
Rodriguez said she does not want to leave Eastie. Her children, ages 8 through 14, know it as home.
“It is very stressful,” she said through an interpreter. “Honestly, it’s horrible.”
Correction: Due to inaccurate information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how much an affordable rental unit would cost at an 80 percent median income level.