Malia Lazu

With the arrival of spring, marked by the vernal equinox, balance returns to our days. Interestingly, we can find here an apt metaphor for what we also need in our interactions: greater balance of perspectives and priorities. Nowhere is this more tangible than in real estate development in Boston where, for too long, there has been a complete imbalance between what developers want and what people in the community need.

Rather than viewing development as a zero-sum game, in which every win represents someone else’s loss, the conversation needs to shift to collaboration to find more ways in which both sides can win together. This is the essence of effective diversity, equity, and inclusion. By listening to and, most importantly, genuinely valuing the learned and lived experiences of others, development can serve the local community, help attract customers to local businesses, preserve the unique identity of neighborhoods and produce an attractive return for developers and their investors.

However, these goals for greater balance will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under the status quo in real estate development, which remains largely white and male. A significant step forward has been the “Massport Model” for selecting subcontractors and consultants, which deeply integrates diversity into development teams and projects. As I write in my new book, “From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” Massport “has been hailed as a significant DEI victory in real estate development, especially in Boston, which had long been called out for failing to move the needle on diversity.” The question remains if developers will allow this balance.

To see the urgency, we need to look no further than the statistics, reported by the Boston Globe in 2021, which showed the city of Boston spent $2.1 billion in contracts over five years – yet only 1.2 percent of that money went to Black- and Latino-owned businesses. Let’s be honest here. These statistics, even though a few years old, have not changed much.

The status quo of who gets the business and why is similarly, deeply entrenched in real estate. Development has become completely imbalanced in favor of big business at the very real peril of local residents and communities.

It’s time for developers in Boston to walk the talk about becoming more diverse and inclusive in one of the most influential and visible industries in our city, which impacts people at the most fundamental levels – where they live, work, shop and seek recreation.

Let’s Raise the Bar in Boston

Pursuing balance in real estate development means listening to the voices of residents, community leaders, business owners and other stakeholders who know the desires and needs of the neighborhood. Rather than being divisive, the process will be cohesive, creating true partnership among developers and those who live in and around the city’s newest developments. This will raise the bar for Boston and set an example for the nation.

The ongoing restructuring of the Boston Planning & Development Agency has been, and continues to be, a top priority for Mayor Michelle Wu and a chance for the city to find a balance between the wealthy and working class. Under her administration, the vision for the BPDA is “to shape growth that serves Boston’s residents and centers their needs” by “restoring planning as a core function of city government and integrating [its] work with other city departments.”

Achieving such goals would set a high standard of balance not only within BPDA, but for real estate development in general. Words alone though won’t accomplish this; only decisive actions can. As a consultant in this effort we continue to receive feedback on how residents want to be involved.

A Win-Win Approach

In her January State of the City Address, Mayor Wu outlined not only her vision “of Boston as a home for every generation,” but also a series of initiatives. Among them, a fund to “acquire apartment buildings and protect renters by making the units permanently affordable through a community trust.” The mayor highlighted the city’s collaboration with community partners in East Boston to enable 114 families to remain in their homes in 36 buildings. Now the new fund will be used for 400 more families in Mattapan, Brighton and Dorchester in 2024.

This is what balance looks like – creating communities in which everyone and their needs matter; in which win/win is not just a slogan, but becomes a workable goal. It translates into greater opportunity for large-scale development and affordable housing and support for small businesses.

At this time of year, we associate with rebirth and renewal, let’s get serious about pursuing balance in our collaboration and community-building. Let’s become more inclusive of people, communities, cultures – especially those who are underrepresented and have historically been marginalized and ignored. Let’s join our voices in pursuit of common goals. In short, let’s become more balanced.

Malia Lazu is a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group, former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank and the author of “From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity.”

Pursuing a Balance of Perspectives in Boston Development

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min