Malia Lazu

Gentrification across Boston has created a significant shortage of affordable housing, in particular rentals that are too often beyond the reach of so many – especially young people of color. This problem has captured the attention of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu who formed a Rent Stabilization Advisory Committee to address the rental market.  

“If we aren’t willing to take on the rent increases that are driving families out of Boston, then we aren’t meeting the needs of our neighborhoods,” the mayor said in a statement announcing the committee back in March 

While escalating costs are certainly troublesome in Boston, where the majority of residents and families are renters, there are other issues that need to be exposed and addressed. Among them is the “lottery” system for affordable housing, which city officials, developers and leasing agents need to improve with greater fairness and transparency. 

This issue was made all the more real for me when young professional I know told me her story. “Chantise,” as I’ll call her here, has “won” no less than 15 lotteries for affordable units in new developments in neighborhoods across Boston. Out of those opportunities, how many apartments has Chantise been able to rent? Zero. 

 3,000 Applications for 62 Units 

As Chantise discovered, leasing agents sometimes had as many as 20 lottery winners for one apartment. At times she was told she was “close,” but that actually meant five potential renters ahead of her.  

Her story is all too common. As Emilio Dorcely, CEO of nonprofit developer Urban Edge in Roxbury, told WGBH News, “At the rate we’re going, we’re not going to really meet the housing needs of both people who are already here, but also the projected new residents that would be moving to Boston for the next several years.”  

Competition is fierce for affordable housing options. One project Emilo was working on received 3,000 applications for 62 units. 

Bias runs rampant, such as the leasing agent who pointedly asked Chantise (not once, but twice) whether she was “Section 8. 

Lotteries allows renters to take a look at the properties (although, as Chantise discovered, the units shown may not be the ones that ultimately get rented). In one building she toured, Chantise asked the leasing agent, “How diverse is this building?” The agent immediately responded, “It’s not about diversity, it’s about who can afford it.” 

Assuming he misunderstood the question, Chantise rephrased it, “Are there any people of color in this building?” The agent replied, “Like I said, this is not about diversity – it’s about who can afford the rent.” Immediately, a Hispanic couple who happened to be touring the property at the same time exchanged a knowing look with Chantise. 

Sadly, this does not surprise me. Gentrification across Boston, including in the Roxbury neighborhood where I live, is all about raising rents. Affordable housing gets little more than lip service, creating a housing crisis for people of color who feel unwelcome and excluded in these developments. Bias runs rampant, such as the leasing agent who pointedly asked Chantise (not once, but twice) whether she was “Section 8,” referring to government subsidies for low-income housing. And twice Chantise confirmed that she was not; rather, this working professional with a full-time job needs affordable housing, like so many others. 

 Agents, Developers: Step Up 

It’s a national crisis, compounded by skyrocketing housing prices across the U.S. In metro areas, high costs and low supply are nearly insurmountable obstacles for professionals looking to rent a decent apartment. As for the lowest-income renters, their problem is most acute, with a coast-to-coast shortage of supply. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “No state has an adequate supply for affordable rental housing for the lowest-income renters.” 

The Brookings Institution recently examined the Boston market, where zoning laws have limited housing development. As the institute wrote: “First, high housing costs impede the regional labor market, making it harder for employers to hire and retain workers. Second, limiting housing development near job centers and public transit leads more workers to undertake long-distance solo car commutes, worsening traffic and creating harmful environmental impacts.”  

Third, “exclusionary zoning” within affluent white communities “exacerbates racial and economic segregation … limiting Black and Latino or Hispanic families’ access to high-opportunity communities.” 

To say such practices must stop is to state the obvious, but once again we need to shine a harsh spotlight on unfair, exclusionary practices. Developers and leasing agents must pledge to increase fairness and transparency in the rental process, particularly where affordable units are part of a development. To do anything less is to violate the principles of inclusive development – and perhaps cross a legal line as well. 

As for Chantise, she recently found a place to rent; however, it is not in one of the new buildings she had hoped to occupy. But she could no longer endure the emotional roller coaster of “winning” the lottery to view an apartment she would never be able to rent. As she told me, “If that wasn’t bad enough, every time I applied for an apartment, they pulled my credit. That happened 15 times – and I know that impacts my credit score.” 

Come on, Boston. We can do better than this. 

 Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.    

In the Affordable Housing Lottery, Being a ‘Winner’ May Be a Losing Proposition

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min