Sam Sutter

Today at 9.30 AM, the City of Fall River inaugurated its new Mayor. Sam Sutter, hitherto the reformist District Attorney of Bristol County, takes over from Will Flanagan, overwhelmingly recalled by 16,557 voters, a huge turnout for a Christmas season election.

Sutter has promised his city a new, optimistic, forward-looking era, and given his record as District Attorney, he’ll probably do it. Certainly Fall River needs it. Vacant land abounds’ empty factories; boarded-up storefronts. Dining out costs about one-third of what you’ll pay in equivalent Boston restaurants. Unemployment approaches ten percent.

Fall River lies 38 miles from downtown Boston, but it might as well be 3800 miles for all that the booming Boston economy means to this riverside community of about 90,000 people. Housing prices tell all that you need to know. You want a spacious two-family house ? $ 199,000 will buy you many. You need a cozy single-family home ? Pony up $ 150,000 and there’s all kinds of offerings at the ready. Rents, too, boggle the Boston mind. Two-bedroom apartments in the city’s marvelously ethnic core fetch $ 600 a month, three-bedrooms $ 900.

Fall Rivber

$ 185,000 buys you this two-family home in the uphill corner of Fall River behind South main Street at Kennedy Park

There isn’t anywhere in Boston that you can find housing at anything close to Fall River prices. Even the cheapest Boston rents ask more than double the Fall River price; house purchases too; and in most of Boston, the increase runs much higher than that. Renting even a small apartment in downtown Boston will cost you $ 2800 and up; buying a downtown condominium, at least $ 575,000 and probably much more.

What does this price abyss tell us ? Plenty that isn’t good at all, for either Boston or Fall River and the many cities in Massachusetts like it — some where housing costs even less, occasionally much less, than in Fall River.

Developers of housing aren’t charities. They’re mostly small business people who build to make a profit. They can’t wait around. An unsold home deteriorates. A developer wants to build and sell and move on.

In  Boston, a developer can do all of that and be very sure about it. Downtown Boston is booming economically — and socially — because the new network of technology, research, finance, public relations, government, health care, and the many service businesses that cater to employees of these all want now to cluster close to one another, personally and for business reasons. Think of today’s downtown Boston — the entirety of it — as one great big Industrial Park with attached amenities; or, more aptly, as one huge mixed-use — residential, restaurants, offices, parking,entertainment — development project.

Fort Point condoFort Point 2

Downtown Boston : $ 1,285,.000 for this 2-bedroom, 2 bath condo in the “Channel Center” complex

Lots of money circulates through t.his Development Project we call “downtown,” and housing is being created within it as fast and as plenteous as builders can get financing and BRA approval for.

Downtown Boston has pretty much sucked the money out of the rest of Massachusetts the way a vortex sucks air out of a jet stream. Likewise, Downtown Boston is a magnet for people, lots of people who a generation ago would have lived in the suburbs, or even farther away, and commuted to jobs.

All of this has left outlying cities like Fall River gasping for attention, people, and money. And worse : housing in many outlying cities of Massachusetts aren’t even holding firm. They’re declining.

Grafton Hill house

$ 150,9000 buys this home on Worcester’s Grafton Hill

Beyond Route 495 one soon comes to Worcester, the state’s second largest city. Despite having many colleges and a robust health system, Worcester has a housing market cheaper even than Fall River. Prices in and around downtown run about 20 percent less than in Fall River. Currently there’s many single family homes for sale under $ 140,000, two family properties at $ 165,000 threes at $ 199,000. In Fitchburg, an old mill city north of Worcester, $ 80,000 to $ 150,000 will buy you a “single”; even lower prices are not impossible.  Farther west, in Athol, most currently for sale singles run from $ 40,000 to $ 140,000. There’s also one for $ 269,000 — a ten-room home on more than an acre of land with a two-car garage. Such a home would likely sell for $ 750,000 in Boston, if you could even find one.

Athol house

“MOTIVATED SELLER” — I’ll bet he or she is, to be offering this Athol 4-bedroom, 2 bath house at $ 118,999

Holyoke house

$ 90,000 is the asking price for this house on Walnut Street in Holyoke

House prices in Holyoke, on the Connecticut River and loaded with empty industrial buildings, begin at about $ 30,000 and go to the $ 150,000s.

To some, the prices I’ve posted here look like magnificent opportunities. I think otherwise. When house prices are that cheap, it doesn’t pay to renovate, because a renovator — and most houses in these cities badly need renovaion — can’t recoup his investment back. Nor can a builder build anew, for the same  reason. And if he could build, who will buy ? People aren’t moving into these cities; if anything, they are moving out. Businesses too.

Of these cities only Worcester faces a significant economic boost. It’s close enough to Route 495 and Boston to attract industries seeking cheaper land costs and commercial rents without being so far from Boston that workers can’t commute. Worcester also has the new Lieutenant Governor, Karyn Polito, and a Governor who appears ready to make economic revitalization of Worcester a priority.

Fall River, with its new “trophy Mayor” and Portuguese culture attractive to tourists, may also see some significant change. If so, its house prices — Worcester’s too — will jump, and its rents. That will be the crisis point, not to be surpassed unless the entire business and culture of the city transforms. Can they ? Should they ?

But if not transformation, what other course will the cities far from Boston choose ? What course can they achieve ? Perhaps like White River Junction in Vermont, or Claremont in New Hampshi8re — once thriving mill cities — they will become havens of post-modern rural tourism, museums for the Industrial Age soon vanished. Myself, I find this outcome much more likely than that they will rise again as centers of innovation. Because housing prices and rent costs that low — plus distance from stuff — impose their own agenda, one in which scarce money eliminates far more possibilities than it incubates.

The same economics are reshaping America’s families as much as its cities. Prosperous families prosper more and moire; the un-prosperous become yet more un-prosperous and have to live vastly different lives than the lives of the propserous.

Actyivists can talk a good game and throw all kinds of political drama into the vortex, but every day that passes, without radical change, the trend I see embeds itself, like a tic, ever more irrevocably in the nape of our nation’s neck.

Welcome to tomorrow.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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