A three-year study recommends more enforcement and higher affordability goals to offset housing discrimination and displacement pressures on Boston’s vulnerable populations.

Boston should add new enforcement clout to its fair housing policies as vulnerable populations contend with higher-than-ever roadblocks to keeping roofs over their heads, concludes a report culminating a three-year study of local conditions. 

A task force is asking Mayor Marty Walsh to use his executive powers to enact a series of reforms. At the same time, it asks that the Boston Planning & Development Agency hire a full-time fair housing specialist, and seeks changes to the city’s inclusionary development policy which sets minimums for affordability in new developments. 

“It’s looking at a higher baseline for all development across the board,” said District 1 City Councilor Lydia Edwards, an outspoken critic of the city’s approach to land-use policy. 

New recommended sources of funding for affordable housing would include an increase in the city’s hotel tax from 6 to 6.5 percent. 

IDP Changes Sought  

The report addresses the BPDA’s role in planning and approving development during a historic building boom over the past decade that has spread to minority neighborhoods long starved of private investment, while increasing displacement pressures. 

“They certainly have been one of the worst offenders in the past: razing neighborhoods and building highways to prioritize the suburban commuter over actual residents of the city,” Edwards said. “They have planned for smaller units that can’t fit families and at prices that are not affordable. My argument is it’s not enough to do better: We have to make it the law.” 

The BPDA this month responded to the widening national debate over racial inequality by announcing plans to hire a full-time director of diversity, equity and inclusion, which has been advertised with a recommended salary range of $107,000 to $134,000. The job description includes coordination with the city’s Office of Fair Housing and Equity to ensure that planning and development projects comply with fair housing regulations. 

Simultaneously, the agency added an equity and inclusion fund to its fiscal 2021 budget with revenues derived from transaction fees on sales and leases of its real estate holdings. 

The Assessment of Fair Housing report issued June 6 seeks changes to the city’s inclusionary development policy, including limits on the number of age-restricted IDP units and those with limited bedrooms, and consideration of new zoning incentives in exchange for more extreme low-income units. 

The policy was last modified in 2016 with a new three-tier fee structure for developers that don’t include at least 13 percent affordable units in multifamily projects, scaled from $200,000 to $380,000 per required unit depending upon average home prices in the neighborhood. The fees support creation of affordable units in other developments located in the same neighborhood. 

Edwards, whose district includes the massive proposed Suffolk Downs redevelopment in East Boston, is pushing for additional changes to the IDP that would be included in the Boston zoning code to eliminate incentives to build off-site units. 

“It should be more expensive to not build affordable housing away from the building than in your building,” she said. 

During past reviews, developers have contended that further increases in fees or affordability minimums would jeopardize the financing of projects altogether. 

Walsh’s office declined to comment on the record about the report’s recommendations. 

Immigrants Vulnerable to Housing Threats 

While the fair housing report acknowledges the role of restrictive zoning in the suburbs as contributing to inequality throughout the region, it focuses most of its attention on Boston’s dominant role and its history of neighborhoods stratified by income levels, race and ethnicity. 

Urban renewal campaigns bulldozed entire neighborhoods for higher-rent projects, highway projects bisected working-class enclaves and minority residents suffered from decades of discrimination in attempting to rent apartments and obtain mortgages. 

More recently, housing pressures on vulnerable populations have been amplified by market forces and Trump administration policies, the report indicates. Amid the administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, foreign-born residents are less likely to report housing discrimination because they receive threats of reporting to U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), advocates say. 

In 2017, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp. created a Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund to represent residents in housing matters including eviction proceedings. The fund, which has an annual budget of approximately $600,000, works with legal aid organizations on immigrant advocacy in housing. 

Steve Adams

“Our grantees have been dealing with clients who had been threatened with reporting to ICE in an attempt to force them to leave an apartment they didn’t have to,” said Michael Raabe, director of data and policy analysis for MLAC. “Other issues that have become more acute during the COVID pandemic have been issues of overcrowding in immigrants and communities of color, which is a formula for transmission of the disease.” 

As for stepped-up enforcement mechanisms, the report suggests the designation of a private, nonprofit agency to monitor fair housing compliance. Stella Adams, a Durham, North Carolina-based civil rights consultant, said having an outside agency separate from the Boston Fair Housing Commission monitor compliance would increase confidence in the system. 

“You need a private group to be dedicated to education, outreach and advocacy in the community and to test markets to make sure they are conducting business in an appropriate way,” said Adams, who addressed the task force’s final meeting this month. 

Fair Housing Struggles Far from Over

by Steve Adams time to read: 3 min