How to plan an affordable future for Boston
Some people in Boston recently went to a fight and a planning meeting broke out. Protesters gathered as the Boston Planning and Development Agency voted to approve “PLAN JP/ROX,” a comprehensive plan for new housing along an underdeveloped corridor from Forest Hills to Jackson Square, where Roxbury and Jamaica Plain meet.
Affordability was the main issue and one that Boston will continue to face as it modernizes zoning and tackles its housing crisis. There’s plenty of room for debate about the best way to keep Boston affordable and inclusive as it grows. But there are a few principles that should guide that debate.
First: The status quo has got to go. Egleston Square Main Street, a nonprofit serving small business owners in Egleston Square, advocated for years to get a comprehensive planning effort underway. We saw large parcels vacant or underutilized, while smaller properties flipped to condos. Rents and home values ballooned while developers built small-scale luxury housing, turning quick profit without doing much to meet increasing demand. If there is any lesson, it’s that the housing crisis was not caused by building too much, but by building almost nothing at all.
Second: People live in units, not percentages, yet criticism of JP/ROX has focused on percentage of affordable units. We prefer to look at absolute numbers. In our neighborhood, more than 380 households are at “elevated risk” for displacement. These people cannot wait. If the only source of funding for income-restricted housing is increasingly scarce public subsidies, they may be priced out by the time funds arrive. But if the private sector, itching to build, is given a pathway, it can deliver hundreds of affordable units in short order.
However, JP/ROX’s critics have rightly raised the issue of how to define “affordability.” Income-restricted units can be set for a range of income levels and we need to keep looking at how to get deeper affordability.
Third: In the debate about whether it was feasible to achieve higher percentages of deeply affordable units within new developments, little attention was given to studies on concentration of poverty. A growing body of research documents the long-term health, educational, and economic effects on children growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods; and new data show that the economic segregation of Metro Boston’s poorest households is getting worse. In Egleston Square, nearly 40 percent of units are deed-restricted. We support the commitment to maintaining that ratio. We’d like to see more exclusive, affluent neighborhoods provide similar opportunities to help keep Greater Boston affordable.
Fourth: Supporting local businesses is crucial. In Egleston’s case, getting all this right means new construction on vacant or underdeveloped parcels: new neighbors and new foot traffic to our existing businesses. As a merchant services group, we’re hyper aware that this opportunity can also be a threat — and that programs like ours are now threatened by the White House’s proposed elimination of Community Development Block Grants. Small businesses pump the lifeblood of our neighborhoods. We need to find ways to help local merchants evolve and grow their businesses as neighborhoods change. We’re all customers, neighbors, and friends.
Any planning process is bound to end with some parties less than satisfied. It’s easy to say JP/ROX has its deficiencies, but it’s undeniable that it was more comprehensive and broad-based than any city process in recent history. It might not be perfect, but it’s a big step in the right direction.
Solomon Lemma and Logan Keck are co-presidents of the Egleston Square Main Street board.