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Boston remains highly gentrified despite housing efforts

Despite efforts to support low-income neighborhoods across Boston, gentrification remains prevalent in the city — a consequence of the area’s affordable attraction, some residents say.

Street in Jamaica Plain neighborhood
Street in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. Jamaica Plain is one of several areas that has been gentrified or declared eligible for gentrification in the city. COURTESY SARAH NICHOLS VIA FLICKR

Boston was ranked third most intensely gentrified city in the United States between 2013-2017, according to a 2020 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Certain neighborhoods in the city, such as East Boston, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park and South Boston, were considered to be gentrified or susceptible for gentrification in the coming years, according to the study.

The gentrification of these neighborhoods took place largely over the second half of the twentieth century, as Boston became an attractive, safe and affordable city to live, said Robert Allison, history professor at Suffolk University.

“It really is a function of having a good economy that attracts people into the city,” Allison said.

Nick Juravich, assistant professor of history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said the city has an “hourglass economy,” with major income disparities among residents and a relatively small middle class.

High-income residents typically want to live in the middle of the city, in areas with good access to transportation and work, Juravich said. Meanwhile, residents in historically working-class neighborhoods aren’t able to pay their rent because the prices keep rising.

“Boston needs more units of housing to address that clear demand for it,” he said. “Even when housing is created, there’s a lot of distrust and a lot of frustration in communities that need access to quality affordable housing.”

The city permitted the creation of 1,023 new units of affordable housing last year, which will be distributed via a lottery system. The majority of new housing units will be sold at market-price.

“Even when there are programs that allot certain numbers of those units to middle and lower income people,” Juravich said, “they don’t feel like they’re really addressing the problem of affordable housing in those neighborhoods so much as accelerating the visibility and the pace of gentrification.”

Boston City Councilors Kenzie Bok and Liz Breadon sponsored a petition in late January that would expand the City’s definition of “landmarks” to include sites with local, but not necessarily statewide, significance.

The change could not only establish equity and preserve the city’s history beyond white, affluent historical figures, but also create a bridge for affordable housing, wrote Bok in an email statement.

“There are historic tax credits on the state and federal level that when paired with things like low income tax credits, housing vouchers, and other affordable housing measures, can really be an opportunity to preserve important neighborhood sites and increase affordable housing,” she wrote.

Despite this, some residents say that gentrification is still increasing in their neighborhoods.

In East Boston, a neighborhood with a prominent Hispanic population, the construction of luxury apartments and condominiums is displacing the present immigrant community, said Gloribell Mota, co-director and lead coordinator of Neighbors United for a Better East Boston.

“They’re not marketing to the families that live here,” Mota said.

She noted waterfront development projects in the 1980s that converted triple-deckers into individual condos.

In Mattapan, a similar situation arose when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Commuter Rail came through the area while housing corporations bought large apartment complexes and increased rent prices, said Fatima Ali-Salaam, chair of the board at the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council.

“They are slowly but surely displacing people,” Ali-Salaam said. “If you are just discarding history as if it doesn’t matter, that’s a great loss.”

She added the Mattapan neighborhood is worth preserving because of its Native American history.

“You have to find that balance,” Ali-Salaam added. “You’re not going to keep a building that is unsafe, but we do have the technology now in order to go in and do things so that buildings can become safe and keep the architecture’s integrity.”

Mota said the councilors’ petition could possibly help preserve East Boston’s history, but the City Council’s efforts have not garnered enough awareness for more people to participate.

“Some of the development, the way that I see has been marketing, is trying to create a new discovery,” Mota said. “It’s not honoring what was already here.”

Residents of East Boston frequently are disadvantaged by a language barrier, and that should not exclude them from the decision making in the city, Mota said.

“There’s people that live here that do care about this community, that are rooted here, that are raising children here, that are actively participant, but were never participants to create the change,” she said.

Allison said Boston’s new zoning laws could help keep people in their communities, but he is still in support of the petition for preserving locations and history.

“[The petition is] a very important step to be able to preserve the historic fabric of the town,” Allison said. “But that’s somewhat different than saying this is going to keep the people here. It’s instead preserving the aesthetic.”

Preservation efforts need to focus on the community in addition to the buildings and historical sites, which comes with advocating for affordable housing, Juravich said.

“If we’re telling local stories, and we’re shifting the power dynamic and preservation such that we’re not just asking people, ‘How can you tell the heroic story of a founding father?’ but ‘What happened to you in your community that really matters to you?’” Juravich said, “we might be opening the door to thinking a little more broadly about what preservation’s for.”

Juravich added that even in historically diverse communities, like Dorchester, several different groups compete for limited space.

“So many families now pay not 30 percent but 50 percent or more of their income in rent just leaves people scrambling on every front,” he said. “It makes it really hard to do the sustaining work in these communities.”

Black, brown and immigrant residents are disproportionately at risk of losing their homes, Bok added.

“The most important thing to preserve is the ability of people from all walks of life, including so many who have built our city communities with their sweat equity across generations, to stay in their homes,” Bok wrote.

Allison added that modern gentrification is less of an issue of active displacement and more of a trend of shifting housing prices.

“The places being built to accommodate high-end luxury condos, being built for a certain market, and that’s not affording housing to people who’ve lived here for a long time,” Allison said. “On the other hand, if you’re not building anything, you’re also not going to have enough housing.”

Tom Sullivan, a resident and community activist in Hyde Park, echoed these sentiments.

“I don’t really think it’s been gentrification so much as affordability,” Sullivan said. “People have moved to Hyde Park because there was affordable housing here.”

Sullivan compared the changing population to people moving from Cambridge to Jamaica Plain in the 1970s because it was more affordable — which led to more movement and gentrification in other neighborhoods.

“People who couldn’t afford to stay in Jamaica Plain came out to Roslindale,” he said, “and we’ve experienced gentrification in Roslindale.”

Boston remains a changing city, Allison added.

“You’ve seen this happening in every neighborhood, North End, Charlestown, South Boston, Dorchester, the South End,” he said. “Each neighborhood really is a different story in any way if you look at them you’ll find some similarities.”

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