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Aug 09, 2019

Designing Boston: Raising the Roof

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In housing development, ideas about home and community sometimes collide with the inequity and discrimination typified by terms such as gentrification, displacement, and NIMBY (Not-in-My-Back-Yard).

On July 18, 2019 at BSA Space, advocates and civic leaders gathered to talk about the work being done to shift patterns and attitudes related to housing development throughout Greater Boston.

The latest Designing Boston started when moderator Diane Georgopulos FAIA, former head of Design and Construction at MassHousing, prompted the audience to think about how different definitions of gentrification can have real impacts on the way neighborhoods are perceived. Comparing three different academic definitions of gentrification, Rachel Drew, from Enterprise Community Partners, created a mapping tool that shows how each definition regards neighborhood changes over the past 30 years. Where one definition shows a Boston neighborhood that gentrified in the 1990’s, another shows that same neighborhood recently designated an Opportunity Zone, offering tax incentives for developers to invest. These variations have real implications and yet they do not even begin to tell the story of the lived experience of residents in these neighborhoods.

Gentrification indicates increases in resident's income and level of education as well as changes in other factors like housing prices and crime rates. Can these changes ever benefit the people who already live there? Courtney Sharpe, Director of Cultural Planning for the City of Boston, is immersed in this very issue, working on “development without displacement” policies for developing on city-owned land in Roxbury’s Dudley Square and Upham’s Corner. In Dudley Square there were 10 city-owned parcels that needed to be put to better use to create economic opportunities for the people who live there. After two years of work on PLAN Dudley, the RFPs for the first four parcels put out to bid asked developers to write a narrative addressing how their proposal would assist current Roxbury residents to “remain in their community in the future, afford housing, and find pathways to economic opportunity.” Proposals were asked to address community requests for family and elderly housing as well as creative options for homeownership such as land trusts and cooperative living. Most of the responses failed to address these questions, leaving continued concern that development will continue to cause displacement.

So, it was not totally surprising when the 2018 YIMBY (Yes-In-My-Backyard) conference was held near Dudley Square that protests were mounted by a group of residents. According to Jesse Kanson-Benanav, the third panelist of the evening and founder of A Better Cambridge, the YIMBY movement has it right—though not enough housing is being built. The YIMBY-movement advocates for higher density and mixed-use development to “address the massive inequities/exclusion and environmental destruction caused by the historical physical and social development/segregation of American Communities.” If we build higher, we can build more and we can have diverse types of housing that ultimately create more diverse neighborhoods. This isn’t the whole story though. And Jesse is pushing beyond density for zoning changes that allow for smaller lot sizes, policies that assist affordable housing developers, and increasing renters’ rights.

And the City isn’t giving up either. Using lessons learned in Dudley, Courtney is working with The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) to create a plan in advance of the Fairmount Indigo line that helps those who already live in the Upham’s Corner to stay there. In addition to anti-displacement strategies, they are also working to create artist innovation housing. Upham’s Corner is one of Boston’s Cultural Districts, so maintaining community there is also about racial equity, access, and representation in the overall culture of the City.

The presentations sparked a lively discussion ranging from inclusionary development policies to the proliferation of luxury housing and the role of universities in creating housing. The moderator, Diane Georgopulos, ended the evening by imploring us all to keep talking and to talk to each other with respect. Affordable housing issues cannot be solved in a night, but everyone has a duty to keep this conversation going.