Boston officials take pride in having the largest percentage of “affordable housing” of any major U.S. city: 19.4 percent according to a 2013 report, compared with a 5 percent national average. By this they mean subsidized housing in which residents must meet income requirements, including new multi-unit 10 or more construction mandated, under Menino, to be 13 percent affordable or to have fees paid into a fund for building low-cost housing elsewhere. While some of these are earmarked for moderate to middle incomes, the approach doesnt come close to alleviating the middle-class-housing crunch in Boston, where the median household income is $53,136 and the median owner-occupied housing price is $374,700. The citys cost of living since 2005 has risen twice as fast as homeowner incomes, and three times as fast for renters. It doesnt help that there have been questions about how the affordable-housing fund has been managed. This means, for example, only 7 percent of South Bostons plentiful family-size housing is accessible to middle-income households.
Economist Barry Bluestone, of Northeastern Universitys Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, who puts out a periodic Greater Boston Housing Report Card, recently documented the dramatic 25 percent increase of the 20-to-24-year-old population since the 1990s. During the same time, the population of older Millennials of child-rearing age dropped by almost 11 percent. Similar trends are afoot in Cambridge and Somerville. “What is happening,” Bluestone said in an interview, “is that students, young professionals, and multi-generational immigrants are doubling up in three- or four-bedroom apartments and pricing single families out of the market.” It is a classic supply-and-demand scenario that compelled Menino, on his way out of office, to call for an increase of 30,000 housing units by 2020.
His successor, Walsh, has pledged to reform the BRA, the only such entity in the country that combines planning and economic development functions and thus, some people charge, gives mayors too much incentive to help private developers, to the exclusion of public planning interests. The new mayor has also convened a special housing committee to address the citys mid-market housing pressures.
Meanwhile, gentrification pressures are mounting across lower-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods such as Roxbury, parts of Dorchester, and Mattapan. Here and elsewhere, federally subsidized privately developed affordable housing projects time out after 15 years, while BRA-funded programs expire after 30. In a red-hot real-estate market like Bostons, it is all too tempting to opt out and revert to market rates. But at least one section of Roxbury/North Dorchester, more than half of the 62-acre “Dudley Triangle,” is protected. In the aftermath of the 1970s busing crisis, the nonprofit Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative formed to reverse the neighborhoods legacy of disinvestment, and later launched a model urban-community land trust on city-owned land—the first with eminent-domain authority. The Dudley land trust is now home to 225 units of neo-traditional affordable housing with 250 more in the pipeline a new community center, a charter school, and an urban farming project. It remains to be seen whether, and how, the Walsh administration will stem gentrification in other nearby low-income neighborhoods.