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In booming Revere, affordable housing stalls as city grapples with its future

Diane Dillon in her new income-restricted apartment in Medford. "I would’ve liked to stay in Revere, I really do love the city and it gave me a lot," she said. "But I had to cut my losses and go."John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

REVERE — During her 25 years here, Diane Dillon witnessed a transformation. Empty lots along the beach sprouted towering luxury buildings. Apartment complexes crowded into neighborhoods of single-family and three-decker houses. And a new generation of residents flocked to fill them.

Through it all, Dillon made rent each month with her Section 8 voucher and disability benefits. But as the city changed around her, and a crush of development ignited the housing market, the 60-year-old sensed that her relationship with her landlord was deteriorating. Rents around the city were soaring, and her voucher paid her landlord less than the going market rate.

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So earlier this year, fearing she would be pushed out, Dillon decided to move. But, within Revere there were no subsidized units to be found, and she couldn’t afford the rents of market-rate apartments.

“I looked around and realized, this city isn’t for people like me anymore,” Dillon, who cannot work a full-time job due to a chronic back injury, said. “Without affordable housing, my income just doesn’t cut it here.”

Long a working-class haven on the North Shore, Revere these days is a city grappling with its identity: welcoming upscale developers while also trying to keep costs manageable for longtime residents.

At present, the former is winning out. Rents around the city have shot up, driven by an influx of newcomers looking for reasonably priced alternatives to Boston. And efforts to build affordable housing have been hindered by politically charged disagreements and have fallen woefully short of demand.

Revere’s quandary was laid bare in July when the City Council resoundingly voted against an ordinance proposed by Mayor Brian Arrigo that would have required new developments larger than six units to include a certain percentage of subsidized apartments.

The proposed law — called an inclusionary zoning ordinance — could have been a turning point in Revere’s broader transformation, advocates say. Without it, they fear the building boom will continue to drive up rents and eventually force lower income tenants out.

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“It is disproportionately our working-class residents who are bearing the brunt of rising costs, and it seems that our elected officials have chosen to turn their backs to that fact,” said Lor Holmes, an organizer with a newly formed advocacy group, the Revere Housing Coalition. “What do they think our city is going to look like in 10 years if they keep hesitating on affordable housing? That’s not a city I want to live in.”

Over the last few decades, so-called inclusionary zoning has become increasingly popular in eastern Massachusetts as Boston’s blistering housing market has rippled across the region. Boston requires 13 percent of units in most new building to be set at affordable rates. In Cambridge and Somerville, it’s 20 percent. In all, roughly 140 municipalities in Massachusetts have inclusionary zoning laws on the books — including Revere’s neighbors Chelsea and Everett. Those requirements have yielded some 9,000 affordable units, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

Construction at 500 Ocean Ave. in Revere in 2019. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Arrigo’s proposal — workshopped for nearly a year with a team of housing policy experts, advocates, and residents — aligned closely with existing policies in other cities. If enacted, developers would have been required to make 12 percent of the units in new buildings income-restricted.

“It’s not a silver bullet, because inclusionary zoning is a market-based policy that relies mostly on private development to meet this need,” said Alexis Smith, a principal housing planner at MAPC who helped shape Revere’s proposal. “But you’re seeing these policies adopted across the region because development is hot everywhere right now.”

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Detractors generally fear that such a requirement will have the unintended effect of scaring developers off to other cities, or raising the cost of market-rate units to effectively subsidize the affordable ones. But in Revere, the fastest-growing city in Massachusetts in the 2010s, according to census data, the leading opponents of inclusionary zoning make a different argument.

They fear Revere has already become too dense and want to slow development. The proposed ordinance, they say, offered too many givebacks on size and scale in exchange for affordability, and would’ve encouraged more building in less space.

“They’re giving massive concessions to developers, huge discounts in terms of the amount of land that’s needed to build,” said Dan Rizzo, the city councilor who led the opposition to the ordinance. “I’m all for affordable housing, but at some point we have to put our foot down and start seriously regulating the amount of development that’s happening in our city.”

Rizzo, a former mayor of Revere and political opponent of Arrigo, called the proposal “a slap in the face to anyone who cares about our quality of life.” He said he had not read the inclusionary zoning ordinances of neighboring cities. Arrigo’s proposal was voted down 8-1.

Workers are silhouetted on the construction site of a storage unit in Revere in 2018.Pat Greenhouse

But the need for affordable housing in Revere, where 57 percent of residents are considered low income, has only grown more acute.

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Census data released last year and compiled by the MAPC indicated that Revere has about 20,170 housing units, about 1,700 of which were subsidized. Between 2016 and 2020, the city generated only 86 affordable housing units. And there are hundreds of new market-rate apartments under construction or in the pipeline.

That’s not to mention the massive redevelopment of Suffolk Downs on the Revere-East Boston line. Work is underway on life science buildings there, which aim to bring well-paying jobs to Revere, but none of the roughly 2,900 apartments and condos planned for the Revere side of the project will be guaranteed as affordable. In contrast, more than 900 of the 7,000 planned on the Boston portion will be income-restricted, as part of the city’s affordable housing requirement.

New developments have already pushed up living costs around Revere — where roughly half of households rent. A report released by the city in early 2020 found that rents of single-family homes — the housing stock that generally has been affordable for lower income residents in years past — had increased by 58 percent since 2011. Today, the average rent for a one-bedroom is $2,339 a month, according to the rental website Zumper.

As it stands, the City Council is the only authority in Revere that can compel a developer to include affordable units in a project. Rizzo believes that process should remain the primary tool. But the council has rarely taken that action in recent years.

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Indeed, no significant affordable developments have been proposed since last year when the Neighborhood Developers — a housing group that works in Chelsea, Revere, and Everett — built a complex of 51 subsidized units on Ocean Avenue. The building received nearly 1,500 applications from would-be residents looking for a spot.

“Revere has to lead” on housing policy, said state Senator Lydia Edwards, who represents Revere. “It needs to do some soul searching as to what that means, because the need is only growing.”

Arrigo said he plans to reintroduce a version of the inclusionary zoning ordinance to the City Council. He also said he is exploring options to build mixed-income housing on city-owned property. And the City Council last month legalized accessory dwelling units, which could help put a small dent in the crisis.

“If we had inclusionary zoning 15 or 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be dealing with an affordability issue like what we’re facing now,” said Arrigo. “Now we have to start all over again and try to find a policy that’s agreeable.”

But increasingly, it’s too late for people like Dillon.

She’s now living in Medford, in an income-restricted unit she found in a flurry of applications to local housing authorities. Medford passed inclusionary zoning in 2019.

“I owe my life to affordable housing,” said Dillon, who grew up in public housing in Cambridge. “I would’ve liked to stay in Revere, I really do love the city and it gave me a lot. But I had to cut my losses and go. I think a lot of other people are doing the same.”

A light crowd on Revere Beach in 2006.Pat Greenhouse

Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.