The police were serving a warrant on a troubled neighbor. A crowd was gathering outside.
And then, in an instant, a sort of manic brawl broke out.
Or, at least, that’s what it sounded like to Savara Willis, huddled inside her apartment with her children as the combatants’ bodies slammed against her heaving front door.
All the violence and dysfunction of her slice of Dorchester seemed to be closing in on Willis and her screaming kids. And the mantra that had been building in her head was peaking: “I gotta get them out. I gotta get them out.”
When she first spoke with the Globe editorial board this spring, Willis, a 43-year-old mental health case manager, was already months into a search for a new place in the suburbs.
But like so many low-income parents who have tried to escape to the band of leafy, opportunity-rich towns that bend around Boston, she was struggling to find an apartment.
Part of the problem, no doubt, was the scarcity of apartment buildings in suburbia.
Over the last century, many suburbs have all but banned them, effectively preventing construction of the kind of places that might serve as today’s reasonably priced rentals. Those zoning codes, though typically justified in terms of protecting the environment or the rural character of communities, have often been thinly veiled efforts to keep out poor people.
Exclusionary zoning, though, is not the only culprit.
The suburbs have erected another, less appreciated barrier to families like Willis’s.
In the civil rights era, the federal and state governments ratcheted up efforts to crack open wealthy communities — subsidizing, and in some cases forcing communities to accept, construction of units set aside for low-income people. But in a cynical move, many suburbs have steered those apartments away from poor parents with kids and toward a demographic they’ve deemed more acceptable: seniors on fixed incomes.
Low-income elders need and deserve affordable housing, of course. Like every vulnerable population in the region, they don’t have nearly enough of it.
But when age-restricted housing is used as a shield against poor children, it’s a problem. A moral failing, even.
Just after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1969, the town of Duxbury published a plan recommending that multifamily housing be allowed “only if it can be legally restricted to elder persons.” And 33 years later, Lynnfield’s master plan made a cold appeal to the bottom line, arguing that senior housing developments “have a positive fiscal impact because they do not produce any school-age children.”
This preference for elders has been codified with age-restricted zoning in big swaths of suburbia.
And at the public meetings that can make or break projects, residents have spoken in coded — and not-so-coded — language about what kind of low-income neighbors they’ll tolerate and what kind they won’t; the state’s senior population skews white, while poor families with kids are more likely to be Black and brown.
Whatever the motivation, the effects are real.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition analyzed census data for the Globe editorial board and found that 29 percent of low-income renters in a census region that covers a large swath of eastern Massachusetts and a portion of southern New Hampshire are seniors. But the share of income-restricted housing set aside for seniors appears to be higher — possibly much higher.
Determining exactly how many income-restricted units are age-restricted is a challenge. The state doesn’t maintain a detailed, centralized affordable housing database as it should. But in 2016, the Globe reported on data showing that more than half of income-restricted units in Greater Boston’s suburbs were set aside for seniors.
That same data showed the suburbs offered up precious few of the income-restricted, three-bedroom-or-larger apartments that are most suitable to families.
Research by Harvard University economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, plumbing millions of census and tax records, has demonstrated that low-income children who grow up in better-off places fare substantially better as they grow older than their peers in poor neighborhoods. They are less likely to have teenage births. They are more likely to go to college. And they earn significantly more money as adults.
A move to a high-opportunity neighborhood may, in fact, be the most powerful tool for upward mobility in America. And yet, in a state that claims to care about inequality, policy makers have too often let municipalities stand in the way.
For low-income families, ‘I have no sympathy’
You don’t have to venture far from the Willis family’s apartment to find the sort of serenity and opportunity that Savara Willis craves.
Just a couple of miles south, across the Boston border, the town of Milton offers up safe streets and gracious parks. And the relatively small number of low-income children who have grown up there in recent decades have taken full advantage.
In one study, Chetty and several collaborators traced the economic trajectory of nearly every American born between 1978 and 1983 — over 20 million people — from childhood to age 35. And they were able to demonstrate that where people grow up — down to the specific neighborhood — has a profound influence on how their lives turn out.
Milton, like most of the suburbs in the region, proved a powerful engine of upward mobility.
Three of the town’s five census tracts ranked in the 99th percentile, nationally, on a measure of lifting poor kids to higher adult household incomes. The town’s other two tracts landed in the 83rd and 86th percentiles, respectively.
Milton, then, can change a poor child’s life. But it remains off limits for too many.
On the northern edge of the town, not far from Boston’s Mattapan Square, you’ll find a tall, L-shaped subsidized housing development with an American flag and rosebush out front.
But every one of its 139 studio and one-bedroom units is reserved for seniors.
The building, Unquity House, is a product of good intentions. An interfaith group pitched it in the late 1960s as a way to keep Milton seniors in town as they aged.
Advocates faced some early opposition. But in 1969, they got a boost when the state Legislature approved a landmark anti-snob zoning law designed to plant more affordable housing in better-off places.
Suddenly, this seniors-only project looked like a chance to meet some of Milton’s affordable housing obligations without attracting an undesirable element. As The Patriot Ledger put it at the time, town leaders believed approval would allow them to “head off any early moves by a private group or governmental agency to construct low income housing projects.”
The vote, in the end, was overwhelming: 180 to 21. And the group behind Unquity House went on to build another all-seniors development — the 160-unit Winter Valley Residences — in 1979.
But Milton’s seniors-first approach got its most dramatic airing a few years later when the relatively new Milton Housing Authority proposed a 48-unit development — 40 units for seniors and eight for families — on an old estate near Cunningham Park.
Neighbors were staunchly opposed. “If I have to step in front of a bulldozer, this isn’t going to go in here,” one resident said at a packed public meeting. But if it had to be built, neighbors made clear, one element had to go.
“I don’t mind the elderly,” one neighbor said at another community meeting. “But for the low-income [families], I have no sympathy, because I was brought up in the slums. I worked my way here.” He didn’t want “anybody on welfare.” He didn’t want “to subsidize anyone’s rent.” And the kids that would come with the family units, he warned, could “tear the whole damn place apart.”
The town’s board of appeals got the message. It approved the 40 senior apartments — with those units, board chair Charles Barrett explained, “we can limit it to our own people” — but rejected the eight family units and the out-of-towners they might attract.
A state official later described the decision as “the most blatant case of exclusionary action by a community I’ve seen recently.” And when the state threatened to withdraw a $2.28 million grant for the project, town officials agreed to a compromise: They’d keep the project seniors-only but build or purchase eight units of scattered-site family housing elsewhere in town.
The town eventually followed through on those eight units — in the face of some neighborhood grumbling. But Milton’s subsidized family housing stock hasn’t grown much since.
Housing Navigator Massachusetts, a nonprofit that has spent years compiling scattered records and creating a user-friendly website with extensive listings for income-restricted housing, provided the editorial board with building-by-building data in Milton and several other towns in eastern Massachusetts.
The board checked that information with town officials and nonprofit groups and identified several units that did not appear in the original database.
In the end, the Milton analysis turned up just 12 income-restricted family rentals — or 3 percent of the rentals with income limits in town. The other 338 units, or 97 percent, are reserved for seniors.
(The analysis, focused on rentals that are broadly available to low-income people, excluded some affordable properties — a small number of units in group homes operated by the state’s Department of Mental Health and Department of Developmental Services; a small number of affordable ownership units for families; and a larger number of affordable ownership units for seniors. The dataset also excludes a small number of affordable senior rentals at a development called Fuller Village; the number of affordable units there varies over time.)
The balance could shift in the coming years. Several proposed market-rate apartment complexes in Milton, if they get built, would set aside some affordable units for tenants of all ages. But even with those additional apartments, Milton’s income-restricted housing stock would still be heavily tilted toward seniors.
Analyses of several other towns in the region — using Housing Navigator data, supplemented by editorial board research, and with the kinds of exceptions described in the Milton case — show similar disparities.
In Westwood, for instance, 70 percent of income-restricted rentals are restricted to seniors. And in Melrose, it’s 84 percent. Just 2 percent of Melrose’s income-restricted units are three bedrooms or larger.
What to do
Policy makers have long been aware of this imbalance. And they’ve made periodic efforts to address it.
In the 1980s, Governor Michael Dukakis and his secretary of communities and development, Amy Anthony, made a notable push for suburban communities to build units for poor families alongside the senior apartments they preferred.
And more recently, state lawmakers passed the MBTA Communities law, which presses cities and towns served by the T to zone for multifamily housing — and mandates that the new housing “be suitable for families with children.”
The law is a laudable step toward increasing housing density in the suburbs.
But there are no affordability requirements built into the measure. And the law’s compliance guidelines don’t stipulate that a certain number of three-bedroom units be built; they simply forbid municipalities from capping the number of bedrooms. That means developers, while free to build three- or four-bedroom units, could still cleave to the studios, one-bedrooms, and two-bedrooms they typically favor.
There is, to be sure, some value in the law’s light touch; the state, in the throes of a housing shortage, can’t afford to burden developers with too much regulation. But as policy makers take a once-in-a-generation swing at opening up the suburbs to development, they should require at least a modicum of affordability for low-income families with kids.
And while policy makers are strengthening the MBTA Communities law, they should also expand its scope — pressing for better zoning not just in T communities but in cities and towns served by transportation agencies in other parts of the state.
Municipalities have an obligation to pare back building restrictions on their own, too.
Right now, all sorts of height, setback, and parking restrictions curb the production of multifamily buildings in better-off communities. And there are plenty of requirements that lock out families with kids, in particular.
Housing researcher Amy Dain surveyed 100 cities and towns in Greater Boston for a 2019 report on obstacles to multifamily housing and found that more than half of the municipalities had zoning for age-restricted housing (usually ages 55 and up) in certain places. More than a quarter capped the number of bedrooms that could be included in at least some multifamily housing — requiring, for instance, as one town does, that mixed-use developments only include studios, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments.
It’s about more than zoning, though.
The state also has to change the way it finances affordable housing, starting with its allocation of tax credits, which are the lifeblood of subsidized housing development these days.
Developers who apply for the credits are awarded a certain number of points for proposing family housing in better-off communities. It’s a useful incentive, but if the state really wants to move the needle, it should substantially increase the points allotted.
And as the state ramps up the incentives for building income-restricted housing, it should make it easier to apply for that housing. At the moment, low-income people have to pull together a dizzying array of documents for every apartment they seek. A common pre-application, with some basic information relevant to any landlord, could make the process substantially easier.
Another intriguing option is to provide low-income families with Section 8 housing vouchers they can use to rent not just income-restricted but also market-rate apartments in better-off places.
That’s the strategy employed by a small state-sponsored program called Supporting Neighborhood Opportunity in Massachusetts. And the program has shown promising early results.
But even if the Legislature expands SNO Mass — and it should — vouchers aren’t a panacea.
One SNO Mass participant the editorial board interviewed — Melissa Gomes, a 41-year-old medical assistant who lives with her daughters, Kamani, 14, and Melyahni, 6, and who signed up for the program through a nonprofit called Metro Housing Boston — has been looking for a new place in a well-off suburb for over a year; competition for market-rate apartments is fierce and Gomes says she’s run into landlords who won’t accept her Section 8, even though that kind of discrimination is against the law in Massachusetts.
Given the difficulty in securing market-rate units, permanent, subsidized housing in suburbia is a must. Without it, thousands of children will be deprived of the opportunity to build the best possible lives for themselves.
Children like Kamani and Melyahni.
Gomes, deep into a frustrating search, said she tries to assure her daughters that they’ll land in a better place some day. But she can sense her kids’ impatience. “Mom,” her youngest keeps asking, “when are we going to go to my new house?”
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.