Boston Chinatown,” Seth Tisue

October 17, 2018; Next City, Dorchester Reporter, and the Boston Globe

This past spring, at a community meeting, Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer asked the questions that face every civic leader concerned about equity and fairness: “How do we bring equitable investments and adequate resources to our struggling neighborhoods? How we make sure any investments made in these communities directly benefit those for whom they are intended?” As cities build and rebuild, do the benefits of large investments of public and private resources touch the lives of all citizens, or do they increase the gap between rich and poor?

Brian Golden, director of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, recently put these questions into the context of Boston today to Next City. “There’s big money being invested and big money being made, but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, being shared equitably by the people of Boston.”

This is a city where the gap between haves and have-nots is extreme:

In 2014, the city was found to be the most income-unequal big city in America. A 2017 study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found the median net worth for Boston’s white households was $247,500, while the median net worth of an African American household was just $8.

Boston’s answer does not trust the “invisible hand” of the marketplace to erase long-term inequity. Rather, it has set an aggressive goal for ensuring investments of public funds impact all, that affordable housing is not ignored, and that its development policies benefit all segments of the community. Golden told the Boston Globe, “We’ve been talking about this issue for a while…we want to make sure this boom really does benefit people throughout the city.”

In announcing a new set of policies for the development of public lands, Mayor Martin Walsh said, “In order to create a Boston that is equitable for all, we must call on our partners in the development and business community to join us in increasing opportunities for our residents. These steps build on the measures we have taken to remove barriers that hinder individuals from reaching their full potential based on their background, race, or gender, while ensuring that new development on public land happens without displacement.”

Development organizations proposing projects now must detail their plans to make sure that contracting is diverse, housing is available, and that those displaced by construction will be supported. Required will be an “outreach program aimed at creating increased opportunities for people of color, women, and for [Minority {sic} and Women Business Enterprises] to participate in the proposed development project…plans to include meaningful participation in the fields of construction, design, development, financing, operations, and ownership…[and] plans to mitigate displacement from development, which will help current residents remain in their communities, afford housing, and find pathways to economic opportunity.”

While these requirements do not control building on private land, they have been put forward with the expectation that they will influence the broader development landscape. Golden recognizes that these new policies must be part of a larger effort if their objectives are to be met. “Will this policy get us to the promise land, a totally equitable society we seek? No, not this policy alone. But it’s a meaningful step in that direction.”

The new policies for public land development are in line with policies that mandate diversity in public contracting and with goals for expanding the amount of affordable housing in the community. Boston’s goal for new affordable housing units is 13,000 by 2030.

For some in civic leadership, even more aggressive actions may be needed to broaden impact, including the expansion of land trusts. In land trusts, community voices are respected when decisions about development are being made. Nationally, as NPQ has reported, land trusts have been powerful vehicles for protecting affordable housing, but have been under-resourced. Boston has a chance to reverse this. According to the Dorchester Reporter, “the city has some tools that can make the process easier, like allocating money from the Acquisition Opportunity Fund or the Community Preservation Act pool to help land trusts buy property. Needling stagnant property owners with eminent domain talk can push them into action…or at least negotiation.”

For City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, the overall Boston effort is “about actualizing something that we talk about a lot, and that is stewardship and community and the community being stewards. And community being stewards and having a stakehold should not be in the figurative—it is not a metaphor. It should be literal and it should be put into practice.”

Boston has set important goals for addressing the growing problem of economic and housing inequality. Now, it’s time to see the results and make policy adjustments, if this path is one others should follow. However, it is worth noting that there is very little public land left in Boston, so this can only be seen as a first step.—Martin Levine