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Report Spotlights Urban Blight In Mass. Gateway Cities

Lawrence Mass. on the Merrimack River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Lawrence Mass. on the Merrimack River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Since 2000, the number of Massachusetts residents living in impoverished neighborhoods has more than doubled, according to a new paper that calls for renewed housing investment in the state’s post-industrial Gateway Cities.

The report — from the MassINC think tank and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations — shows that across the state, more than 161,000 people live in areas of concentrated poverty: census tracts in which at least 40 percent of residents are below the federal poverty line.

(Courtesy of MassINC/MACDC)
(Courtesy of MassINC/MACDC)

Ben Forman, MassINC's research director, says that’s largely because of an increase in economic inequality, but also because support from the federal government in the form of Community Development Block Grants has been eviscerated.

"Our Gateway Cities literally have $100 million a year less today than they had in 1980, to deal with older homes that are blighting a neighborhood and depressing everybody else’s property value,” Forman said.

The report stems from a sentiment Forman said comes up “repeatedly” among mayors of Gateway Cities: State policymakers focus disproportionately on the housing crunch in Greater Boston, neglecting “weak market neighborhoods” outside the Hub still struggling to reach pre-foreclosure crisis property values.

While Chelsea and Boston have seen values go up 16 percent and 46 percent, respectively, since 2006, according to the report, in Worcester, Fall River and Fitchburg, the price per square foot is down 15 percent.

The report also points to increasing vacancy rates in Gateway Cities, as well as declines in home ownership, as problems for policymakers to address.

In Lawrence, Lynn and Springfield, for instance, the rate of owner-occupied homes has decreased 7 percent since the beginning of the century, while the rate of vacant units has increased across all Gateway Cities by an average of 3 percent.

Forman said the coexistence of relatively high rates of poverty and of vacant properties is a sign of trouble on the horizon.

"That combination right there is something to be concerned about, because when you have a vacant property, it’s going to depress the value of the house next door, [which is then] at risk of becoming vacant,” he said. "And then it just spirals.”

Forman noted that many in the community development sector believe federal funding is unlikely to return to the levels of the 1980s and 1990s — and that, he said, means it will be up to the state to take up the slack.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ben Forman's last name. We regret the error.

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