In a city that is starved for affordable housing, how much is too much in one neighborhood?
Roxbury has a disproportionate share of income-restricted rental housing compared with other neighborhoods in Boston, and City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said that’s come at the expense of other kinds of development residents need, like affordable homeownership options, commercial space, and green space.
Now she’s proposing a temporary moratorium on all new development of the neighborhood’s public parcels, which she said will give the city a chance to consider whether affordable housing should be spread out more to other neighborhoods, and what kind of approval process could help that happen.
“Instead of concentrating poverty in one area of Boston, why don’t we have all of Boston share that responsibility?” Fernandes Anderson said.
Her proposal is likely to face steep political opposition and pushback from those worried about the housing shortage.
”Roxbury can’t afford to stop housing production,” said David Price, former executive director of Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation. “There are people being displaced right now.”
But even if it doesn’t win approval, the proposal could provoke discussion about the significant disparity in the distribution of affordable housing — both public housing and privately run buildings that include subsidized and income-restricted units — throughout the city.
As of 2021, 54 percent of Roxbury’s housing was income-restricted, the highest proportion of any neighborhood, compared with just 6 percent in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods like the Back Bay, the North End, and Beacon Hill. Income-restricted dwellings, which are limited to households making under a certain fraction of the area’s median income, make up 19.2 percent of Boston’s overall housing stock, the highest percentage of any major city in the United States.
The proposal comes at a contentious time for elected officials, who are under pressure to increase the city’s affordable housing stock in a hot development market. Roxbury has been a focal point for the city, which in recent years has been trying to redevelop vacant lots acquired during urban renewal into affordable housing.
And earlier this month, the city announced that developers recently broke ground on a mixed-use, mixed-income housing development in Nubian Square replete with 70 income-restricted units.
The moratorium, if approved, wouldn’t apply to projects already in the works, including P3, the vacant 7.7-acre city-owned parcel across from the Police Department headquarters on Tremont Street, which is in the early stages of being redeveloped after a succession of proposals over two decades didn’t work out. The development team, HYM/My City At Peace — which proposed a mix of lab space, shops, green space, and affordable condos as well as market-rate condos and apartments — won by default after a second bidder pulled out, citing economic shifts that complicated financing. But Fernandes Anderson said residents’ concerns that there were too few bidders to begin with in the latest go-round informed the hearing order.
Development moratoriums are uncommon, but they’re not unheard of. In recent years, some Massachusetts towns like Dedham and Saugus have pressed pause on major development projects to assess the population boom’s impacts on traffic, schools, and the community.
Fernandes Anderson said she hopes her request for a hearing on her proposal will help city officials see how packing the affordable housing stock in her neighborhood has hurt its residents‘ quality of life.
“People in Roxbury go to work, and then they go home,” Fernandes Anderson said. “But where are people going to take a nice walk down the park? Where are people going for a jazz club?”
She said she would like to see changes in the process for approving new development that will allow residents to have a stronger voice.
Under the current BPDA system, said Lavette Coney, a member of Roxbury United Neighborhoods (RUN), a coalition of neighborhood associations, residents are brought in at the tail end of the process “to check off the box.”
“We know what’s best for us,” she said.
Proponents of the moratorium said they aren’t against affordable housing; instead, as Coney put it, “We want equitable development.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu declined to weigh in, saying the administration looks forward to the discussion. Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon said in a statement that her office “strives to balance the desire for affordable housing opportunities and anti-displacement work in individual neighborhoods with the need to ensure that those opportunities are equitably spread across every neighborhood.”
But Jesse Kanson-Benanav, executive director of pro-housing group Abundant Housing Massachusetts, expressed concern about development moratoriums in general at a time when Boston’s housing supply can’t keep up with high demand, though he agreed that affordable housing should be more evenly distributed citywide. Pausing construction would leave more people fighting for the same number of existing units, he said. And when that happens, “the wealthy folks will always win.”
Price said it’s been tough historically to convince developers to build in Roxbury because “the rent has not been attractive enough to market-rate developers to justify the investment.” And building affordable or mixed-income housing means navigating public funding requests and cumbersome requirements.
“Not all developers want to take on the challenge of building affordable housing, or even mixed-income housing,” Price said.
Despite those barriers, developers have built multiple affordable housing projects in Roxbury. Barry Bluestone, a former lead author of “The Greater Boston Housing Report Card” and retired political economics professor, said Roxbury’s urban renewal history has left the neighborhood with many empty city-owned parcels suitable for large-scale affordable housing sites. Roxbury is also larger than cramped neighborhoods like the Back Bay, and has more room for those kinds of developments. He also pointed to NIMBYism in whiter neighborhoods and neighborhood zoning policies that limit the number and types of projects that can be built.
Connie Forbes, another Roxbury United Neighborhoods (RUN) member, said too much affordable housing “encourages the cycle of poverty to be passed on to the next generation.” Without affordable home-buying options and moderately priced rentals, people in subsidized housing have a perverse incentive to stay poor — if they earn too much, they no longer qualify for an affordable unit and can find themselves priced out of the neighborhood.
Forbes said Boston should push for the development of more affordable homeownership opportunities for first-time homebuyers, because this “removes the limitations we have on our residents.”
Coney said there should be more commercial spaces so residents “don’t have to get in the car and go somewhere” to meet their shopping needs. Roxbury-based entrepreneurs should steer the development and planning of these projects, Coney said, not outside developers.
And developers should convert more city-owned parcels into viable green spaces, she said.
Norm Stembridge, cochair of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee and a Wu appointee to the Zoning Board of Appeal, declined to comment on the moratorium but said there’s not enough of any housing — whether it’s income-restricted housing, rentals, homes — in Roxbury, period.
As someone who spent his formative years in the neighborhood, he said he’s tried to use his committee appointment to pump life back into Roxbury with diverse housing options and commercial space. Will it ever get back to its heyday, before urban renewal destroyed a once-thriving commercial hub, and forced generations of Bostonians out of the neighborhood? Stembridge is “not sure about that, but we can certainly try.”