THE SUFFOLK DOWNS CHALLENGE

HYM’s Tom O’Brien balances the equities at a recent meeting concerning his company’s huge Suffolk Downs creation project

The vast Suffolk Downs development proposal will enormously change the physical and social architecture of upper East Boston and the Beachmont part of Revere. It will dramatically densen the traffic flows on Route 1-A. On this, everyone is agreed — not so much on anything else about the prospect.

Into this discussion, District 1 Councillor Lydia Edwards has deposited her own views on Suffolk Downs’s consequences. I quote her facebook argument in full :

Although the developers’ plans call for 1,000 of the units to be affordable, in accordance with the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy, that policy allows for incomes as high as $74,500 a year, far above the average individual income of $38,000 in East Boston. Edwards also points to HYM Investments’ estimates of 1.5 people per unit in their development, lower than even the Seaport Districts 1.7 people per unit and far below the current 2.6 per unit in East Boston.

We have babies,” Edwards said. “We have families. We are an immigrant community.”

Edwards, who has been a critic of the city’s supply-side economics theory that developers will build Boston’s way out of the housing affordability crisis, said the Suffolk Downs site could accelerate the displacement of middle- and low-income families already happening in East Boston or, if done right, expand opportunity.

“It is the single largest opportunity to grow the middle class in Boston,” she said, noting the project is expected to bring thousands of construction jobs to Boston over the next 20 years. “It will either be the greatest opportunity or the greatest loss.”

Edwards said she would like to see firm commitments from the development team to hire local workers in the construction and pay the prevailing wage.’

This is our generation’s airport. We need to organize and make sure that we fight for what’s best for our community and our city. Please consider attending one of my upcoming workshops on the proposed plan (information can be found on my events page to the left) and if you haven’t already please submit your comment to the BPDA on the proposal.

No one has better narrated than Edwards the economic contradictions of the Suffolk Downs plan. So : can the Suffolk developer offer housing at a p[rice that current East Boston (and Revere) residents can afford, while at the same time paying union wages to those constructing it ? The developer’s chief, Tom O’Brien, says No, that the land cost alone makes such an outcome impossible. He said so at a recent public comment session at the Downs, and he said it again to me privately when I conversed with him after the meeting.

As for what I think about the Suffolk challenge:

First, the Suffolk Downs proposal is not located in East Boston proper,. One third of it lies in Revere, the other two thirds in Boston but commencing just beyond East Boston’s northernmost residential street, Waldemar Avenue. It is an extension of East Boston — not a replacement, as are most East Boston developments on tap. Suffolk’s major impact on the heart of East Boston will be pricing influence : the buy prices for its for-sale units, and the rent costs for apartments, will firm up a market price from Day Square north. (Less so from Day Square to the Harbor, because the density of housing there is thicker, and living quarters are more in demand from many types of customers.) This will happen regardless of how Edwards’s suggestions play out, because Suffolk is building 10,000 units for 15,000 people.

Edwards asks that the Suffolk prices reflect, in advance, the income situations, and housing needs, of current residents. Markets don’t work that way. If the addition of 10,000 housing units to the East Boston-Revere housing market were priced to attract tenants and buyers who currently live in East Boston, and all were taken up by current residents — a hypothetical, to be sure — who would then come in to take their place ? And at what prices ? Almost certainly, if 10,000 current Eastie residents were to move into Suffolk Downs — to continue the hypothetical — the result would surely be a major rise in rents for units suddenly vacant, or buy prices for houses now for sale : because the overwhelming majority of in-comers to East Boston will be well-heeled earners clamoring to move into the City, as is the case now and why the City is desperate to build new housing galore. There simply isn’t the huge influx of immigrants awaiting, with thin budgets, the like of which made East Boston what it has been since the 1850s.

Fortunately for the future of East Boston, very few current residents will likely decamp to the new Suffolk Downs.

Huge numbers of immigrants were able to settle in East Boston during the past 150 years — including my grandparents in 1896 — because of very cheap housing — bare bones row houses and tenements with zero amenities — built by workers paid $ 1.00 a day. But builder workers today earn $ 20.00 an hour and more (and they should), and health codes prevent the overcrowding that was OK in 1896, including basement hovels with no windows, overcrowded occupancy, units with no central heat and the flimsiest electricity, shared bathrooms — and landlords who didn’t give much of a damn, in an era with few laws and regulations forcing them to. (One major Boston landlord was famous for keeping his rents far below market in exchange for which he never repaired anything.) None of that can exist today. If immigrants do come into East Boston, and aren’t simply homeless once here, they get apartments with modern kitchens and baths, storm windows, circuit breaker electricity, and landlords who must comply with significant MGL c. 183=-186 laws and the many Attorney General regulations issued thereunder (and under c. 93A, the consumer protection law). Workmen earning $ 15.00 an hour and sometimes much more do the repairs. The units are insured. That costs money — at least $ 5,000 a year. The Board of Health oversees sanitary conditions set forth in laws and regulations both State and City. All of this costs money that wasn’t needed by the people who housed the immigrants of 1896 — or of 1946, for that matter.

Edwards’s focus on East Boston’s median income at $ 38,000 also doesn’t reflect the actual living situation — which is that, in many, many households in the neighborhood, two, three, even four and five $ 38,000 workers live in one unit. Why ? Clearly it’s to pay the $ 2,000-plus rent AND save up enough down payment to buy a family house — in the picket fence suburbs, mostly, where one can park in a driveway and send the kids to schools that actually work. This is what my grandparents’ six kids did, and they were hardly an exception. This is what most East Boston people have been doing all along and even right now. For immigrant families, East Boston has always been a beachhead from which they can spread out to the entire countryside and live with trees, a lawn, fresh air and quiet at night. Because this was so, and overwhelmingly the case, Boston real estate had, until recently, always been in a bear market and vastly under-priced.

Yet in spite of the $ 38,000 point, Edwards thinks it politically smart to advocate enabling current immigrant residents to move into Suffolk Downs rather than buy a house in the suburbs, as their predecessors have long done ? Is she onto something ? She might be. Many East Boston people want to stay in the neighborhood; in communities teeming with diversity; amid noise and scant parking, with cost-free public transit and green-space readily nearby, with schools that work — somehow — and with all the amenities one expects in a big metropolitan city. Today, people talk of “community” when they extol East Boston as an attractive place with all the fixings. (It is that. I know, because I am trying desperately to move back in, as soon as I can afford it.) Yet prices in the city today are high and going higher, in keeping with the much higher than median earnings of those who are moving in.

I sympathize with those who continue to live in East Boston, who have always lived in it and now see their once ignored neighborhood become a destination. I understand those who do not want to either leave or pay $ 2,500 in rent. I can grasp the decisions of those who do not want to sell their house at a now lottery winner price because they want to continue to live near their neighbors and friends. However, why does the Suffolk Downs project promise the level of revolution Edwards hypothesizes ? Suffolk Downs is not on the waterfront — far from it. There’s no water views, no funky corner restaurants, no three-generation families. Those who might move from East Boston to Suffolk aren’t likely to be immigrants seeking a picket fence house nor a long-time resident looking for a change. They’re most likely to be either newcomers who can’t afford the waterfront but want to be as near as feasible, or older residents looking to downsize — units as planned now will be noticeably small.

Make the Suffolk units small enough, and even $ 38,000 a year people can buy them. Micro-housing is already here. For not too outrageous a price you can own a 350 square foot broom closet with bath and kitchenette. Suffolk could possibly even pay union scale to those who build 350 square foot squeeze tubes. Problem is that Suffolk isn’t planning units anywhere near that small — and in any case, Edwards says, about East Boston, “we have families.” Families aren’t going to seek out 350 square foot units. Families are going to need 850 square feet, probably closer to 1,150. These cannot be built by union-scale workers and then offered at a price affordable by $ 57,000 a year earners, much less $ 38,000.00. There will need to be two such workers per applicant family — at least.

To sum up : the problem is NOT one of housing or of construction worker pay. It’s one of income generally. The Boston housing market is in rampant bull mode because demand is surging, and most among very high earners. If Boston is to accord the majority of residents a pathway to the residential future,. we will need to boost the median income, radically. A City minimum wage of $ 21/hour isn’t too high for affording life in the new Boston. I’ve heard no one propose it. At $ 21/hour a forty-hour-a-week worker earns about $ 42,000 annually. (At $ 25/hour, that worker earns about $ 49,600.) A two-worker $ 21/hour family earns about $ 84,000 yearly — enough to afford most housing in the City, even if built by union-scale construction guys. The problem then will be to not lose one’s jobs, but with that (quite crucial) proviso, raising the minimum wage is an easier solution to affordability than devices for fighting or evading market forces. It’s the answer to Edwards’s challenge to Suffolk’s developer.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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