A Boston of rich and poor, with no middle class
BUILDINGS LIKE the Kensington are driving Downtown Crossing's comeback. But they're also driving Boston to an untenable place, as a city where the rich lord over the poor, and the middle class is being squeezed out of existence.
The new Kensington tower is a lovely place. The building soars 27 stories over Washington Street, a block from the Common, and it boasts a rooftop pool and some killer views of the city. In many ways, the 381-unit apartment tower is exactly the kind of development Boston needs to encourage. It adds meaningful height to the downtown, and its tenants help advance the ongoing transformation of Downtown Crossing into a vibrant, genuine urban neighborhood. The building replaced a long-abandoned theater and a strip club, and its opening strikes one of the last remaining blows against the old Combat Zone.
The problem is, Boston has had a difficult time lately building anything but luxury residential complexes, and it's threatening to choke the life out of the city.
Boston Mayor Tom Menino appeared at a ceremony inaugurating the new Kensington tower last week. And at the same time that guests were touring the Kensington while listening to jazz and munching on tiny quiche pies, the Boston Foundation was unveiling a sobering new report on the state of the region's housing — one that told a roomful of Boston housing advocates that there isn't much room for them in the city's resurgent housing market.
Scores of homeowners remain stuck in the foreclosure morass, haggling with banks and fighting to stave off eviction in the housing bubble's long hangover. For those not battling banks over soured mortgages, though, the foreclosure crisis has passed. It's been replaced by a familiar malady: Greater Boston's longstanding housing affordability crunch.
According to Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone, author of the foundation report, incomes have remained stagnant for homeowners, and fallen for renters. So even if prices stayed flat, housing affordability would be eroding. But prices for homes, condominiums, and apartments have been climbing, gradually in some neighborhoods, precipitously in others.
The end result has been a city with rapidly growing populations of both rich and poor residents, while middle-class families are vanishing.
Boston's housing construction boom threatens to exacerbate this dynamic.
The vast majority of the condominiums and apartments in the city's development pipeline are luxury units. There's nothing wrong with these developments, in isolation. Boston is now growing more quickly than it has grown for the better part of a century, and these new residents need somewhere to go. New housing construction helps keep new arrivals from overrunning triple deckers across the city. But an exclusive focus on high-end developments will wind up pricing middle-class families out of Boston entirely.
Developers have been rushing to build new luxury homes because the numbers on more modest developments often don't add up, and there's an extremely limited supply of public subsidies for new affordable housing developments. Menino's recent goal for constructing 30,000 new housing units by the year 2020 acknowledges the need for a renewed focus on affordable and middle-class housing construction. If Menino's successor is going to reverse the hollowing out of the city's economic center, he will have to get serious about tilting the market toward more modest buyers and renters, without a large pot of direct subsidies.
Menino's housing plan suggested cutting deals with unions, which could be enticed to accept somewhat lower wages on projects dedicated to moderate-income residents. This was likely music to the ears of local developers, who often complain about the high cost of labor. But construction labor is only one the costs facing developers. City agencies are major landowners in areas like Dudley Square, and along the Fairmount rail corridor — places where City Hall wants to develop dynamic mixed-income neighborhoods. The city should be more aggressive about selling or leasing these parcels cheaply, in exchange for meaningful concessions to low- and moderate-income residents. Public bonding and zoning height bonuses are two more public levers that don't get used often enough, but that could quicken the pace of affordable-housing construction. The city needs to do everything it can to tilt the housing market in the favor of its disappearing middle class. The more Boston becomes a city solely of doormen and leather chairs and astronomical rents, the poorer it is for it.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.