To Live (Some Notes on Housing)

February, 2019.

Construction is nearing completion on One Dalton Place in the heart of Boston’s Back Bay. One Dalton Place is a series of luxury apartments perched atop a hotel. The apartments in the building have reportedly sold for prices ranging from $2.5 to $40 million dollars.

Boston had a population of 685,094 in 2017. It’s estimated to have a population of 710,000 to 724,000 residents by 2030. The city of Boston needs to see 15,000 homes built every year in order to keep track with population growth.

The average median rent in Boston is somewhere between $2,300-$2,800 dollars per month. Rent has been rising continuously in the city since 2009, where the average effective rent was 1,600 a month. That’s a 43% increase at minimum, an average of $700 more gone to the rent, and it means that — all together, as the organization Massachusetts Housing Partnership put it — “88% of households earning median income can’t afford their neighborhood’s average median rent.”

And — to top it off — there’s also the question of race: the median income of an African-American family in Metro Boston is $8. And, as Elliot Schmiedl noted in a blog post over at MHP, the financial burden for African-American families doesn’t end there: “Just five cities accounted for 45.7 percent of all loans to black borrowers in Massachusetts in 2017. Black borrowers received no home-purchase loans in 129 of the state’s 351 cities and towns and only a single loan in 50 communities.” As the report “Towering Excess” notes: “In 2015, not one single home mortgage loan was issued for African-American and Latino families in the Seaport District and the Fenway, two Boston neighborhoods with thousands of new luxury housing units.”

In short: luxury housing and luxury apartments are being built. Affordable housing is not being built. Some cities try and find a way around this problem by requiring that — in order for a developer to receive some needed funds to finish building a building — they have to set aside a certain number of units for affordable housing. But that doesn’t always cut it: the Inclusionary Development Policy in Boston was created in 2000 with the idea that any building with 10 or more units set aside 13% of those units for affordable housing. In the space of 19 years, 2,072 units have been created, with enough remaining funds to help create 1,140 extra units — 109 affordable units built per year in a city that needs to see 15,000 units built every year. (Or consider the fact that — in announcing a 45% boost to the affordable housing budget — the city of Boston could soon have the same amount of money set aside for housing as the equivalent of four apartments at One Dalton Place.)

And if previous reporting by others is any indication, there’s a degree to which some individuals seem extraordinarily sensitive to the idea of anything that reflects the ideas, wants, or wishes of a tenant in the slightest. (And it might not be entirely limited to Boston either: with Amazon making headlines announcing it was withdrawing from building a second headquarters in Long Island City, David Lichtenstein of the Lightstone Realty Group was quoted calling it the “worst day since 9/11, except this time the terrorists were elected.”) Despite the fact that the city once introduced a bill that would not allow tenant advocacy groups access to real-time eviction data and would simply alert tenants to the fact that eviction proceedings had begun against them, one individual told a public hearing that “The [Jim Brooks Act] will kill jobs … with the promise [of giving] tenants a lifetime sinecure.” (The Jim Brooks Act died in committee four years after it was introduced [as it continued to face opposition].)

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There is a lot more to be said about Boston, but this isn’t a problem limited to Boston alone: as Harvard’s 2018 Joint Center on Housing Studies Report makes clear, the vast majority of new housing is now going to the well-off. There are 2.5 million fewer units in this country renting for $800 or less, which is what the typical renter can afford. (By a strange coincidence, it’s perhaps also worth noting that there are — on average — 2.35 million individuals evicted from where they live every year.) Home-ownership rates for African-Americans are at a 30 year low.

And though low-interest rates are doing work to help keep housing affordable (as you can see in the charts above; it’s also worth bearing this in mind as the current occupant of The White House continues to cajole the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates), that doesn’t change the fact that a near record-number of individuals are rent-burdened. It doesn’t change the fact that about ⅓ of all households in large metropolitan areas are cost-burdened (with Los Angeles clocking in at the highest 47% of all households.) It doesn’t change the fact that ¼ of the 13 million people who rent spend more than 30% of their income on rent. (The national median rent rose 20 percent faster than overall inflation between 1990 and 2016 and the median home price rose 41 percent faster.) And the dynamics of housing and development are as such that they actually may be unmaking some cities as places of near-universal economic opportunity.

What does that mean? What does it look like?

It means that — in Ferguson, Missouri — people on Section 8 housing receive phony eviction notices. It means private equity firms buying mobile home parks to raise the rent because private equity firms see an opportunity where they can make a billion dollar profit.

In Highland Park, Los Angeles, it means a rent strike. In Brooklyn, it means a landlord turning off the electricity, heat, and water in an attempt to bully someone out of their apartment in a market that saw $9.5 billion worth of business in 2015. In Richmond, Virginia, it means — as of last year, though bills have recently been passed — the second highest eviction rate in the country as housing prices steadily rise. In San Francisco, in the face of polls that suggest strong support for housing, police appear to be seizing the tents of the homeless before winter storms (and this line was written before the GoFundMe homeless imbroglio.) In Seattle, after a decade of expansion fueled by Amazon’s growth, the wealth gap between white homeowners and black homeowners — as well as homeowners and renters — is wide. One D.C. business group has issued a report noting that “the exodus of low- and middle-income families from the District continues unabated.” As this exodus continues, there are attempts to mute the culture of D.C.. And, amongst all this, it appears that some lobbyists are more interested in paying homeless people to save them a spot in line in the halls of the United States Congress rather than actually work towards giving these individuals a home. It even means — and of course it means this, given the numbers, but the framing is still stunning — K-12 homelessness soaring by 70% over the past decade. (And this is to say nothing of Franklin Foer’s recent work in The Atlantic on Russian money laundering its way through American housing markets.)

It also means that we watch television programs that celebrate ‘extraordinary’ homes in a tone that may convey comfort — and may even be comforting — but nevertheless use language that is classist. The 747 House may be a remarkable building set amongst the striking colors and hues of the Santa Monica mountains, but when Caroline Quentin on The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes frames a visit to the house by saying something like, “Remote mountain living offers peace, tranquility and stunning vistas” just outside a city where the City Council decided to revive a measure limiting developer donations because a FBI probe was looming as you read about developers buying up properties and jacking up the rents for no real reason other than profit, the discrepancy — the willingness to sell the luxury and the idea of the luxury — stands out.

What can be done? What’s being done? What deserves attention and support?

You can celebrate temporary victories. You can join a tenant’s union. Or, if that isn’t your thing, you can read through what’s available on Local Housing Solutions.

Attention shouldn’t just be paid to Oregon moving towards implementing statewide rent control or Minneapolis deciding to ban single-family zoning, but also to the $12 billion additional dollars that were given to HUD above the President’s request, which includes money for Section 8 housing, mobility vouchers, section 811 housing (for people with disabilities), section 202 housing (for housing for the elderly), and a specific grant set aside to spur Native Americans to build affordable housing. But — as welcome a sight as those numbers are (and the work the work those numbers represent) — it should be worth saying: just because there is money being set aside and made available doesn’t mean that unscrupulous actors won’t see the fact that they can make a profit from it and then — in the name of giving themselves an advantage, with one flick of the figurative switch — make it worse.

Caution should also be applied to opportunity zones, general obligation bonds, and tax-increment financing, each of which has been advanced as a potential solution to the trouble that prevails in our national dynamic and each of which has faults and shortcomings of their own.

More cities should be encouraged to join the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network run out of the U.S. Treasury, which monitors potential criminal purchases of property.

Though — before we go any further — it’s worth asking ourselves: how does an overview written in the early dawn of 2019 compare to a view of what it’s like on the ground?

June, 2019.

Since February, we have noticed a few more things: New York State has passed a series of new rent protections widely seen as a victory for tenants (including — for those of you who remember John Oliver’s piece on Last Week Tonight — rules protecting those living in trailer parks); tenant protections in California failed; Los Angeles has now hit a stage of homelessness dubbed a ‘crisis’; ProPublica ran a series of stories flagging how zoning laws in Connecticut have played their part in keeping housing inequities in place; we discovered The Folded Map Project examining corresponding addresses on the North and South Side of Chicago; The Last Black Man in San Francisco was released; condo prices in Massachusetts hit an all-time high as rent-burden in the state surpassed New York and D.C.; Ben Carson proposed evicting 55,000 immigrant children from housing in the name of ‘opening up space’ for others; and — after gentrifiers complained to the police about Go-Go music playing from the speakers of a beloved local institution — an anti-gentrifying movement of joy dubbed Moechella was born.

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All of which circles back to a point we made in print at the beginning of the present administration: if a community really knows itself, then it can do good for itself. That’s the idea of the ideal. It can understand that it is dealing with — as Sarah Schindler put it — “antagonism over access to urban space, infrastructure, and material flows of resources.” It’s a sentiment that becomes all the more evident when the current occupant of The White House signs an executive order ostensibly ‘tackling the problem’ of housing but — in citing rent control and environmental regulations as a ‘burden’ — and citing them while carbon emissions rise and kids are kept in filth and die on the U.S.-Mexico border in the name of fulfilling a decades-long dream of killing innocent children ‘just because’ — we instead see something that fits the strange word of ‘ecofascist’ — as in, a home and an environment will exist for those we deem fit to have it.

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But the problem is and the joy is — space matters. And everyone belongs.

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