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Let's Not Repeat The Sins Of Racial Segregation In Boston's Next Housing Plan

 (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh made headlines last week when he announced a $500 million pledge to build more affordable housing in the city. In making this commitment, the mayor highlighted what everyone who lives and works in the city knows, and what numerous studies have found.

Boston is experiencing a housing crisis with rapid gentrification, rising costs and segregation. Increasingly, Bostonians — particularly in communities of color -- can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods they used to call home.

The Mayor’s pledge has the potential to be transformative — but only if the city adopts a comprehensive approach to the affordable housing crisis. That means addressing two key challenges: guarding against segregation and involving the private sector.

First, in all of its affordable housing initiatives, Boston must affirmatively seek to ensure integration — by race, by income and by familial status. Otherwise, the city will perpetuate the segregation that has long plagued the region.

True integration takes constant vigilance and affirmative steps. 

Last year, the Boston Foundation issued its Greater Boston Housing Report Card which reveals the full extent of housing segregation in the Greater Boston area. As the report outlines, housing segregation has deep roots, extending back to the days of overtly discriminatory practices like redlining and continuing to present-day practices of exclusionary zoning. The report accurately shows how Greater Boston “suffers from a persistently high level of racial segregation” and is “hypersegregated” for black residents.

Any affordable housing initiative that the city undertakes that does not explicitly account for this reality is doomed to perpetuate it. For example, the city redeveloped the Seaport District over the past decades, but never with an eye towards creating an integrated neighborhood. The results show: a largely white, largely affluent, new neighborhood has risen in the city’s midst.

True integration takes constant vigilance and affirmative steps. Particularly now that the Trump Administration is rolling back efforts to further fair housing laws, the city must redouble its efforts in this regard.

The proposed Suffolk Downs project — which would be one of the single biggest developments in Boston's history — provides a pressing example of the risk of paying insufficient attention to the problem of housing segregation. As communities of color have consistently warned, the project as currently proposed would essentially create a predominantly segregated neighborhood, with housing costs and rents for the vast majority of units prohibitively expensive for Boston’s households of color. Moreover, the skewing of proposed unit sizes away from two- and three-bedroom units needed for families with children will disproportionately bar home-seekers from the neighborhood based on familial status. The city can and should insist that the developer alter its proposal to address this problem, or Suffolk Downs will become another “hypersegregated” neighborhood like the Seaport.

Any affordable housing initiative ... that does not explicitly account for [racial segregation] is doomed to perpetuate it.

Second, as the Mayor recognized in detailing his plan to tackle the affordable housing crisis, the public sector alone cannot solve this problem. And since the private sector depends on a workforce that can afford to live and work in the Boston area, it only makes sense that it, too, should be part of the solution. Boston is now leaning on the local business community to do just that, drawing on examples from San Francisco and Seattle, where tech companies have ponied up big money for affordable housing initiatives.

The city must also insist that private developers, who have long benefitted from the building boom in Boston, step up to the plate.

The Suffolk Downs project again provides a prime example of how the city can accomplish this. Next month, the project is slated for approval by the Boston Planning and Development Agency. Yet despite repeated calls from affordable housing proponents, the developer’s commitment to adequate affordable housing remains anemic, at best.

The city has broad discretion to reject any planned development that is “injurious to the neighborhood or otherwise detrimental to the public welfare.” Given Boston’s ongoing affordable housing crisis, the Suffolk Downs project as currently contemplated falls squarely in this category. The city should insist that the developer do more to help alleviate Boston’s affordable housing crisis — or reject the project next month.

We applaud the city’s commitment to solving Boston’s affordable housing crisis. If officials can now be vigilant against perpetuating segregation and convince the private sector to step up to the plate, Boston can establish itself as a true leader on affordable housing.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. Oren Sellstrom is the litigation director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. Janelle Dempsey is the civil rights fellow at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

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