Boston City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson just started an important, if slightly uncomfortable, conversation: Can there be too much affordable housing in one Boston neighborhood? And why isn’t there more affordable housing in other neighborhoods?
It’s worth talking about. And instead of just reflexively dismissing Fernandes Anderson’s call to limit new affordable housing in her Roxbury district, other councilors and housing advocates ought to come forward with their own solutions to the concern she raised.
As the Globe reported, 54 percent of Roxbury’s housing is income restricted — which means it’s reserved for households earning below a certain income. That compares with 6 percent in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods, such as the Back Bay, the North End, and Beacon Hill.
Given those statistics, Fernandes Anderson is calling for a temporary moratorium on all new development of public parcels in Roxbury. “Instead of concentrating poverty in one area of Boston, why don’t we have all of Boston share that responsibility?” Fernandes Anderson asks.
Still, arguing that there’s too much affordable housing anywhere can be a hard sell. The national shortage of affordable housing is considered a crisis, and that’s certainly true in Greater Boston. According to The Boston Foundation’s annual Greater Boston Housing Report Card, housing prices are up and out of reach for most people. In Cambridge, a house slated for demolition with boarded up windows and a tarp on its roof just sold for $2.3 million. Meanwhile, new housing production remains stagnant.
Boston rents are also sky-high; according to one recent report, this city has the second-highest rents in the country. In addition, according to the Boston Foundation report, about 45 percent of renters overall in Greater Boston spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, which means they are considered “cost-burdened,” and the percentage of renters of color who fall into that category is higher — about 52 percent of Black renters and 53 percent of Latino renters. Meanwhile, housing production does not meet current needs. It lags especially in Boston’s wealthy suburbs, where there is resistance to housing in general and affordable housing in particular.
In Boston, poorer neighborhoods like Roxbury are getting a larger share of so-called income-restricted housing. On one hand, that’s good for those who need it and it can be a tool to fight displacement. But Fernandes Anderson believes that it also comes at the expense of other needs, like affordable home ownership options, commercial space, and green space. Too much of it in one neighborhood could also have the effect of lowering property values for others.
The pressure to provide housing is real, but the disparity in the distribution of affordable housing is a legitimate concern. If the city’s poorest residents are all housed in one neighborhood, that creates a kind of economic segregation that is hard for people to break out of. This is not just a Boston problem. Federal research has shown that low-cost housing is concentrated in high-poverty areas across the country. In San Diego, a lawsuit that alleges city officials worsened generational poverty by concentrating low-income housing in one neighborhood is headed to trial. “No legitimate purpose is served by concentrating poverty in these low-income areas,” the plaintiffs say in their complaint. “Rather, keeping the low-income housing out of the non-affected communities feeds to the will of those with higher incomes and the resulting ability to influence politics through their wealth.”
Reams of research suggest that economic desegregation would be good for poor people. How to get there is far from straightforward, but it must involve both wealthy suburbs opening their doors and cities pulling back from policies that concentrate poverty. Ultimately, where affordable housing is built is a matter of planning that reveals a city and a state’s philosophy about equity, wealth, and income. A moratorium in one Boston neighborhood may be too blunt an instrument, but by proposing one Fernandes Anderson has illuminated a problem that policy makers and affordable housing advocates themselves too often ignore.
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