Let’s face it. There will never be room for the middle class in Boston
The city’s soaring real estate costs, plus better schools in the ‘burbs, make it hard for ordinary folk to stay.
The middle class — especially middle-class families with children — is vanishing from Boston. Policymakers and politicians long for a fix. “In my second term,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh proclaimed in his January inaugural address, “I will prioritize the fundamentals of middle-class opportunity in our world-class city.”
Forget it, Mayor. The fundamentals of middle-class opportunity are cheap housing and good schools. That’s not going to happen in Boston. And it’s not your fault.
Boston is demographically complicated, as becomes clear if you look at reports by the city’s Planning and Development Agency. Most of its downtown neighborhoods are young, rich, and predominately white. Others — such as the onetime working-class areas of Charlestown, East Boston, and South Boston — are heading in that direction. At the same time, neighborhoods such as Mattapan and Roxbury and sections of Dorchester are decidedly poorer and mostly of color.
Boston is also a city of immigrants. New residents arrive, speaking a multitude of languages, using the city (one hopes) as a launching pad to the American Dream. And it’s a growing city. Folks with money used to flee cities — largely because of fears over safety (and also, to be blunt, over race) as well as a desire for more space. That happened to Boston: From 801,444 residents in 1950, it hit a low of 562,994 in 1980. Then, in the 1990s, a miracle occurred — indeed, the “Boston Miracle,” sparked by then-Mayor Tom Menino’s Operation Ceasefire. Violent crime dropped and a new urbanism took hold. From that 1980 low, Boston’s population surged to about 670,000 in 2016.
But the newcomers aren’t like the folks who left. They’re more educated, relatively well-off, and young. They like the restaurants, bars, and nightlife. They relish the city’s cultural and economic dynamism. They enjoy the proximity to new ideas and others like themselves. And that remains true even as they couple up.
Everything changes, however, when another miracle occurs: kids. That’s when the exodus begins. The reasons go back to those fundamentals: housing and schools.
Depending on household size, a middle class family as defined by the Urban Institute makes somewhere between $35,000 to $100,000 annually (this does not include the upper middle class, the “poor” rich, with household incomes up to $349,000). If you apply the conventional rule that housing should cost about 30 percent of total income, the middle class household has somewhere between $875 to $2,500 a month for a home. Yet the median rental price in Boston is $2,800 — well above what even the highest-paid members of the real middle class can reasonably afford. And it gets worse when you look at square footage: Boston real estate averages $681 per square foot. In the Boston metro area, the price is $263, well less than half. Think about it: more than double the space for the same price. Move to the ’burbs and the kids get their own bedrooms!
Why does Boston cost so much? Demand by those new urbanists, for one. So too, it’s far more expensive to build in the city than outside of it. Land is at a premium and multistory construction is costlier. And the recent tax law will bring more pain. Its sharp limits on mortgage deductions effectively make more expensive the carrying cost of loans that middle-class folks need to purchase a home.
Education compounds the problem. Forget private schools: Their tuition averages over $20,000 a year. And the public schools? Boston fares poorly. SchoolDigger, for example, ranks the Boston Public Schools 305th out of 334 districts statewide. Granted, some parents hang on, hoping their child gets into one of the city’s three exam schools (Boston Latin, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science). But the exam schools are intensely competitive. And the dismal performance of the regular, non-exam high schools means few middle-class families would accept them as an alternative.
So, what can be done, Mr. Mayor? You trumpet that 5,000 new homes were built in 2017 — 1,000 of which were restricted to those with low and moderate incomes. But that’s hardly a solution. Lower-income housing, by definition, is for those who don’t make enough money to be in the middle class. And the rest of that housing is luxury housing, built for the rich. The middle class is left in the lurch.
So too, you promise to improve schools. But as you know, the crying need is not for more classrooms catering to middle-income white kids — it’s for stepped-up services for the least well-off. It’s hard to imagine a political environment where you or the city would favor the better-off at the expense of those in need.
Sure, it would be wonderful to have genuinely mixed-income neighborhoods. But getting there is like pushing water uphill: The economics and the politics are rushing the other way.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? The virtue of the rich is that they tend to demand less in the way of city services but have the means to pay a lot in taxes. Those taxes in turn power a city budget that allows you to focus on residents who are poor, working class or newly immigrated. It’s not a perfect model — the income stratification of neighborhoods and the threat of increasing gentrification are genuine worries. But you’re not going to solve them by hoping the middle class will return. They’re out along 128 and 495, cutting their grass, driving their kids to practice, and cursing their commute. And there they shall remain.