^ four candidates spoke and answered questions at last night’s District Five candidate forum

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Last night, at a forum for candidates seeking District Five’s City Council seat, the question of “affordable housing” came up, as it always does these days in Boston policy discussions. Amid the standard answers given by most of the candidates, that affordability should be a priority — though no one proposed a means for achieving it — one candidate vowed to impose a “20 percent minimum” on Boston developers seeking City permissions. Such an imposition is self-defeating, as I shall show, and that it can be seriously suggested at a forum makes clear just how useless, even damaging, is today’s conventional wisdom about house pricing.

Currently, Boston development rules require large projects — those taking charge of 50,000 square feet of living space or more — to offer 13 percent of proposed units under criteria of affordability : some at a price that people making 30 percent of City median income can pay, some at 50 percent. Most electeds whose views I am aware of think the 13 percent rule is quite okay. A few, like the candidate at last night’s forum, think it should be raised to the 20 percent figure. I find both rules self-defeating :

Developers begin with acquisition cost for the land on which they intend to build. The cost of buildable land in Boston has risen almost beyond the markets’ reach. Tom O’Brien of HYM asserts that it will cost $ 500,000 per unit to build his immense Suffolk Downs project. I think he is underestimating, but even if he isn’t — if he is right about the $ 500,000 — the result is that, having to offer 13 percent of his 2200 for sale  units at an “affordable” price means that he must jack Up the price of the remaining 87 percent of units in order to “make the  numbers work,” i.e., to not lose money. I think this result is universal in the world of the 13 percent rule : imposing it may sweeten the price for 13 percenters, but it lifts the price for everybody else.

The 13 percent rule raises the market price of Boston housing by 13 percent.

Because developers are willing to pay acquisition prices that require that 13 percent sale price boost, the 13 percent rule also raises the prices that owners ask when they are looking to sell.

The candidate who proposed lifting Boston’s development rule to 20 percent “affordable” thereby commits to raising the market price of Boston housing by 20 percent — a price lift which will put even more Boston housing out of reach of most Bostonians. In actual life, the 20 percent figure cannot happen. The city of Cambridge imposed a 20 percent rule,. and according to HYM’s Tom O’Brien, development immediately stopped. Perhaps that is the actual objective of proposing a 20 percent affordability rule, though no matter what the objective, no affordable housing is enabled thereby, except by making the market condition even more unaffordable.

Nor has the City administration helped the situation by calling for 69,000 units of new housing by year 2030 and then opening the floodgates of zoning variance to assure the goal is reached in time. The magnitude of the plan, and the hurried time limit, has generated a buying frenzy price war whose results we see all over the neighborhoods close to Downtown. Perhaps it would have been wiser to let the market figure out how to time demand and size it ?

Nowhere in any discussion that i have heard about house affordability is there mention of the real difficulty : that Boston’s median household income is too low. Wage earners, who are the most impacted by the price boom, must find a way to earn more — much more. There are only two ways : raise the minimum wage, as the State has done and will probably do again, or support unions at every turn as they fight to win better wages and benefits for their thousands of workers. Well led contract efforts by Local 26, SEIU”s locals, the Stop & Shop workers, utility workers, and others have brought better times to thousands, and more money, which means more ability to pay today’s high rents or buy prices. The union labor push is, I hope, far from finished. People who already live in Boston must take charge of the market, and they can only do that if they earn much higher wages.

Higher wages also benefit the economy generally, but the City cannot merely stand aside as it happens. City administrators should rethink having an “affordability percentage” rule at all. It doesn’t work, any more than any other attempt to circumvent the ironclad laws of numbers. Hopefully candidates running for open Council seats in Districts 5, 8, and 9 — and for Althea Garrison’s fill-in at-large seat — will begin to offer smart answers to the affordability challenge instead of surface responses that sound good but can’t survive fiscal analysis.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



Last night I attended the last public meeting for the initial phase of HYM Group’s huge Suffolk Downs development. For the past two years HYM has hosted these public affairs, at every sort of East Boston and Revere  neighborhood association and to other sorts of locally resident communities. I’ve seen it so often that I’ve practically memorized the presentation. It is worth remembering, because it involves 10,000 units of housing — 2200 of them for sale — as well as 50,000 square feet of commercial space, 40 acres of open space, and an estimated cost of $ 320,000,000 just to build the necessary infrastructure, not to overlook $ 23,000,000 in so-called “mitigation payments” — in reality a kickback — to the City of Boston and probably an equivalent kickback, er “mitigation,” to the City of Revere.

In effect, HYM proposes to build an entire City, occupying — so its CEO, Tom O’Brien, tells us — 20 years to complete it.

I have no problem with the presentation. HYM has gone the extra mile, maybe an extra ten miles, to involve everyone it could reach out to, assuring that the public is fully aware of its plans and all the details, which are long and manifold. I also have no problem with the proposal. If HYM’s investors want to take the risk involved, that’s what capitalism is, and kudos to its capitalists for accepting risk when they could just as easily own Treasury bonds.

My two problems, which I will now discuss, are with the nature of the capital risk and the strong likelihood that HYM’s 10,000 units of housing will peak the market, moving maybe the entire northern half of metro Boston toward oversupply, with all the consequences. Don’t call me alarmist. I’ve seen many real estate projects — huge ones — top off a market easy to topple, given the immense degree of borrowed-money leverage that real estate markets always take on. We think today that there’s no stopping the Boston building boom, that people in need of housing will continue to clamor to live in Boston; but these trends can change, and quickly. In 2004 there seemed no end to the rush for suburban McMansions, yet by 2008 these over-sized houses far from Downtown were almost unsaleable. Who of today’s home buying generation wants one ? not many.

Those who live in Boston — and who are not homeless — already live in a housing unit. New housing is Boston needed only for those who do not yet live here. So : will 10,00 new residents be available for HYM’s 10,000 units ? Or, if current residents decide to live in the HYM’s city, will those 10,000 current units find 10,000 people to rent or buy them ?

That is the risk that HYM’s investors are taking on, and I am not convinced that it’s a slam-dunk. The enormous costs of building housing in Boston already motivate builders to seek outlying locations. Why else is the Governor’s zoning reform bill so powerfully backed by Mayors and realtors ? HYM has it even worse : it can’t only build. It has to implant the entire infrastructure that on existing streets is already in place : electric lines, sewers, water mains, cable, and roads. O’Brien told last night’s meeting that the total cost of building a Suffolk Downs unit is $ 500,000. I think he’s under-estimating. That might be the cost now, but he is committed to use union labor — which is a good thing — and union wages rise over time, as do the costs of materials and permits. Remember : the HYM proposal will be built in four phases over TWENTY years.

The other problem is that Tom O’Brien asserted that his investors have accepted a 5.7 percent rate of return (ROE). If he is correct — and I’m not convinced — then his investors are taking way too great a risk of market change. Most REIT’s look for ROE’s of 11 to 15 percent. Given the immense degree of leverage — borrowed money — involved in major real estate projects, if sales fall short by ten percent, or if mortgage borrowers’ default rate is higher than the usual two to three percent, an ROE of 5.7 runs a substantial risk of default or loss. HYM’s record of success with big projects may well have induced its investors to accept a 5.7 ROE; but reputation is not immune from market change. A 5.7 ROE by itself suggests that our market is peaking, because no serious investor would accept less, and very few would accept 5.7. If this is the present price level, it is one that likely can’t be sustained without major boosts in our region’s median family income.

Speaking of median income, some activists showed up at last night’s meeting asking, or demanding, that HYM offer more “affordable” units than the 13 percent required by City development rules. Personally, I don’t see why there should be any such rule. It’s the investors’ money. They are risking it, they should be free to set the rules. The 13 percent requirement has squeezed developers already. Anything more than that would likely stop development altogether. I think the entire notion of “affordable” in our housing market has gone for the duration and won’t return unless family income rises significantly — a subject of itself , well worth discussion — or the market turns seriously down — in which case we’ll have, as a City, worse economic problems than affordability. In any case, the affordability demand with respect to HYM seems to get the market wrong. I think you will see HYM doing some serious price cutting well before its 20 year build period ends.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




^ 119 Leyden Street : a beautiful, 1880s gem, to be torn down, according to a proposal that should never be allowed.

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Last night I attended a monthly meting of the Orient Heights Civic Association — my first since January. What I saw surprised and concerned me.

The 75 or more locals who saw and listened to two development proposals expressed the usual — and correct — objections to a development process in which the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals approves proposals that aggressively alter, rather than support, the character of the Orient Heights neighborhood. These normal objections should be honored by the Zoning Board, but they are not. I have written before this about the duty given by State law to Zoning Boards of Appeal : that any variance they may give from an area’s zoning designation must enhance and carry out the purposes of that designation. In Boston these past several years, the opposite is the rule, and people are right to dislike that.

Yet what I saw at the Orient Heights meeting went beyond the usual Zoning variance case. In both the proposals offered, 119 Leyden Street and 192 Gladstone Street, two perfectly good, well maintained homes, one an 1880s gem, are to be torn down and replaced with, respectively, a nine unit and six unit condo building. I headed this column with the photo of that 1880s gem to illustrate the audacity of what was being asked. By what whim has development in Boston now reached a point where dwellings that enhance the character of a neighborhood are to be torn down and done away with ?

To put it another way : Are we now at the point where houses — normal houses that establish a neighborhood’s personality — are to be eliminated entirely, purchased by a developer who can afford to pay more than any ordinary, resident home buyer because he or she can turn the parcel into 6 to 9 units each selling for almost the price of a single home ? Well, yes, we ARE at that point, if developers know that the Zoning Board of Appeals will grant them the variances they need to make such an outcome work. And if we are at that point, then neighborhoods like Orient Heights, where normal homes sit on lots large enough for developers to build 6 to 9 condominium units, have no defense. Might as well cash out and say goodbye to a neighborhood that has worked well for a century.

Fortunately for the rest of East Boston, the same strategy cant work. Homes in Jeffries Point and most of Eagle Hill sit on much smaller lots. There’s no room to do what the 119 Leyden and 192 Gladstone developer is trying. Not that downtown East Boston hasn’t its own weaknesses against the moves of grand-design developers; but at least they aren’t naked to this one.

It’s also an easy tactic to counter. The tear-down proposal can’t work if the City won’t approve the necessary variances. That’s all it takes to safeguard the character of Orient Heights, as the State’s zoning laws were adopted to do. Why won’t the City administration put a stop to it ?

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere





^ Better schools are the key to having this young mother and her family stay in Roslindale rather than moving out. Nor is she the only young parent who will either stay, as we say we want them to, or leave.

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Having just spent more than a month knocking Hyde Park and Roslindale doors with District Five candidate Maria Esdale Farrell, I have a large plate of first hand voter opinion to offer you on the issue most often on voters’ minds in these two neighborhoods of Boston. What to do about Boston schools ? That is the subject most often voiced.

It was the same way back in the 1980s, when, then living in Roslindale, I ran for a public office based in Roslindale, Hyde Park, and points southwest. Then, however, the almost universal view was that Boston schools were hopelessly mired in busing from a child’s home neighborhood to one far away, a thing parents understandably refused to accept and so moved, out of the City entirely. Thus began an exodus of “Rozzie” and Hyde Park people that continues to this day.

If the turnover of homes continues, especially of the most affordable properties, the school issues that began it have changed. The fundamentals are not the same. In the 1980s, busing was a Federally ordered remedy for school segregation arising from segregated neighborhoods. Today the neighborhoods of Boston — all of them — have integrated racially and ethnically, which means there’s a solid basis for rescinding the 1975 Federal busing order. It is now seriously suggested by people on all sides and is certainly seen as crucial by people who own homes in “Rozzie’ and Hyde Park. Nor is rescission of the busing order the only school reform people in these neighborhoods bring up as they set forth the conditions they require if they’re to stay in Rozzie or Hyde Park — to not take half a million dollars for a home that in the late 1980s was worth maybe 50,000 at best.

Here, then, is a list of school reforms that Hyde park and “Rozzie” voters talk about, along with my own suggestions  generated by what voters told my candidate :

( 1 ) end the busing order. The City’s School Budget allocates $ 96,000,000 to transportation. Imagine what that $ 96 million could do for classroom equipment, teacher aide salaries, school lunches, and after-class activities.

( 2 ) bring back an elected school committee. Voters want to participate directly in Boston schools governance and see the appointed committee as too subservient to the Mayor, who is accountable to the voters on far too many fronts for school accountability to get proper priority. Some voters are willing to allow the Mayor one or two appointees to a reformed School Committee, but they want nine to twelve members elected from three districts exclusively drawn for school elections. (District Five opinion on this issue must take into account Rob Consalvo, who was Five’s Councillor and who now serves, by Mayoral appointment, as the School system’s chief of staff. I see no reason why Consalvo cannot respond to an elected committee as readily as to an appointed one, but his opinion on the change must be respected.)

( 3 ) reconstitute parent-teacher associations (PTA’s), which back in the days before busing assured each Boston schools of its direct response to the concerns and priorities of the parents of kids attending.

( 4 ) be open to alternative schools, because education today is no longer a one size fits all service. Charter schools of many kinds should be available to serve parents who want them, but locating charter schools is the sticking point. The Roxbury Prep proposal currently on offer proposes to occupy the old car dealership premises on Belgrade Avenue, and its proponents strongly believe in the location, close to public transportation; but all three neighborhood associations adjacent oppose the location; the result is that a school which ought to be built right now may not be built at all.

So —- local schools locally attended, directed by principals with power to hire and fire, subject to oversight by a committee elected by those who use the school system, and rigorous administration of a schools budget poorly managed and vastly over-committed to employee wages and benefits (these take up 86 percent of the current budget and have done so in all the last four budgets as well), as well as allowing alternative schools to flourish in local settings — these reforms would do wonders toward persuading current — long-term or recent arrival Rozzie and Hyde Park home owners to stay; to not cash out and leave the City; to feel good about the future direction of these two neighborhoods, which offer the same driveway, front lawn, back yard, and abundant verdure that one finds in much-desired suburbs : and which, unlike many suburbs, offer vibrant community connections, funky businesses, and plenty of social network venues, as one expects of a City setting. Yes, Rozzie and Hyde Park today have all of these, the funky social networking downtowns having come to full fruition only recently; but it won’t matter much if the area’s schools do not respond to what locals insist upon.

Lastly ; there are some who feel that the reason for long-term home owners leaving is “white flight.” I disagree. Those who left thirty years ago may well have feared a neighborhood becoming largely brown people or those who speak different languages. That is not true today. What I heard at the door was the same for every voter I listened to, of whatever skin hue or native language. And why not ? Those who think that people with brown skin or whose native language might be Albanian, or Spanish, or Yoruba (Nigeria) want something different from what Bostonians of prior immigrant origin want could not be more mistaken. Voters of Rozzie and Hyde park all want to be ordinary Americans and live ordinary American lives, no different, no matter what you hear from politicians with an agenda. On the schools front that’s absolutely true. You want Rozzie to remain ‘quirky” and Hyde Park to maintain Hyde pride ? Give them better schools better governed. It really is that simple.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


tough traffic, but not unmanageable

My District Councillor, Lydia Edwards, has called for “having a conversation” about Boston’s traffic problem and how, perhaps, to reform it. I commend her for inviting conversation.

Actually, it’s already begun : at Large Councillor Michelle Wu proposed a $ 25.00 fee for resident parking stickers. How this assessment alleviates the traffic, I have no answer. Presumably Wu thinks that imposing a fee for Boston resident street parking permissions will induce many to park their cars somewhere other than on the street.

Is this feasible ? Probably not, in the zones most impacted by heavy traffic. So, is this proposal then a device for raising city revenue ? I can’t imagine any other purpose of it, and I object on that ground. Car owners are already taxed and fee-assessed : the excise tax, parking garages Downtown, car insurance, license and registration, annual inspection fee, and if you get a parking ticket, fees galore added. Car owners are easy prey for revenoo-ers : add the gas tax, the cost of a car loan, gasoline and car repair : in my own case, as my wife and I both keep a car on the road, it costs us about 1100.00 a month to pay for everything assessed or charged to us. It’s also twenty percent-plus of our monthly income. I doubt we’re the only ones. Wu’s $ 25.00 parking permission fee could not possibly be moire regressive. I reject it out of hand. It shouldn’t be part of the conversation at all..

What sort of proposal should be talked about ? I’ll suggest some at the end of this column, but first I think we ought to figure out how our traffic mess got to where it now is. Boston roads developed in stages and represent very different, clashing eras of transportation assumption. Downtown, East Boston, Charlestown, the South End, and much of South Boston were laid out long before cars existed. Most of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mission Hill, Brighton, and Jamaica Plain were planned out when cars were few. Mattapan, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Readville, and West Roxbury came about with street plans allowing for every family owning a car.

Hardly any allowance was made for cars at first, not enough allowance was made second, and full allowance came only for some of us — which means that Boston voters entertain contradictory interests in the traffic and parking.

I know of no one who lives in third-phase Boston who believes that Boston should make it more difficult for  City people to own and use a car. In first-phase Boston, however, many residents feel otherwise: they see their narrow streets filled with Airport-bound Ubers and Lyfts and visitors — for these are all tourist destination neighborhoods — parking where residents need to park. First-phase residents can’t easily drive their neighborhoods, much less get from them to other places. East Boston people see even worse, as Route 1-A brings immense volumes of North Shore commuters into and through the neighborhood on its way to the Harbor Tunnels. (Which adds a fourth phase to the three I have already outlined — Route 1-A and the Tunnels were built, in the 1930s and 1970s, onto an already existing neighborhood almost without regard to their impact on it. You could not get away with that today, but back then there was no organized neighborhood action, and what action did arise arose almost too late to make a difference.)

Charlestown has been all but cut off from surroundings by the Rutherford Avenue by-pass and a bridge to the North End that forms a traffic bottleneck almost every day. As for the North End itself, cars are almost an impossibility in its European-narrow streets, yet they’re everywhere, and parking if you’re not already in a space, is almost an impossibility.

All of that said, the requirement that you be a bona fide resident in order to to obtain a parking permit seems to me sufficient restriction.

Parking takes second place to the traffic situation, which affects everyone who needs to get to or through Downtown. The let’s-ban-cars folks say, make car use so prohibitively expensive that people are forced onto public transit. Leaving side the intolerable overreach of such proposal, public transit only goes where it wants to go and when it wants to go there. Fine, if its destination is yours, and its schedule fits your schedule, but if not, then public transit is a burden we should free to not take on.

Public transportation exists to serve those who have no other means and for those who have only one destination, not three, and who don’t want the hassle of finding parking in Downtown or paying upwards of $ 25 for it. And that is ALL it is for. Public transport can NOT be made mandatory. We live in a free society.

I have no problem with public transportation managers seeking to induce new ridership. That’s what any service provider seeks to do : attract new customers. What I object to is having a governmental authority order it, or force it by imposing taxes, fees, and street bans.

Now let’s talk about traffic in a traffic context and not as a justification for imposing other “mobility”: systems on people.

As traffic moves on roads, the conversation ought to confront the miserable design of Boston’s major roads. The Central Artery was built to traffic assumptions from forty years ago. Its designers evidently saw no problem with ( 1 ) squeezing traffic at exits down to one lane ( 2 ) building ramps onto the left lanes of a four-lane roadway barely a half mile from exit ramps on the other side of said roadway. Coming from the Ted Williams tunnel you enter the main highway from the left, then have to nudge your way across bumper to bumper traffic over to the right side in order to exit onto Massachusetts Avenue. 

These mistakes cannot just be wished away with a magic wand. Redesigning our major traffic roads, re-framing them and, perhaps, rerouting them, is out of the question. The disruption would be worse than the congestion. We’re pretty much stuck with what’s there. Nor is the congestion fatal to business. Thanks to cell phones , you can conduct a negotiation while stuck in traffic; can call whoever needs to be called, can plan ahead for when you — and your team of negotiators, or the other side — arrives at wherever. You can also schedule stuff, because even at peak traffic, it takes on average about 30 to 35 minutes to drive from the tunnel entrance at North Station to the Massachusetts Avenue exit. If you’re driving from Eastie to the other side of the Harbor you can also use the Ted Williams tunnel. From entrance to South Boston exit takes about fifteen minutes even at peak traffic. With a fully charged cell phone in your car you should be able to surmount inconvenence of this degree.

What, then, do I suggest ?

First : do not over-react. City ordinances should not be a kind of scratch to an itch.

Second : enough of dedicated lanes. Setting aside road for MBTA buses exclusively, and for bike travel does not better the situation, it worsens it. European cities set no such policy. All “mobility” types mix it up in the same traffic ; vespas, bikes, cars, jitneys. If there’s one principle of traffic management that we must apply, it is equality.

Third : It is maddening to have to find which lane allows you to turn left, or to go straight ahead, at a stop light; and drivers shifting lanes to meet the preference required by current traffic managers only thickens the jam.

Fourth : maintains roads and bridges in good repair. This is far more important than re-routing or creating dedicated lanes. Poor roads cause unnecessary car repairs (potholes everywhere), and bad bridges force complete shut-downs at the worst possible stretch of road.

Fifth : there are some road routes that do need re-thinking. The bridge at Readville, from one side of Wolcott Square and Sprague Street to the other, at Truman Parkway and Hyde Park Avenue, comes to mind. Too many roads intersect in too many competing combinations. There should be an underpass here, for through traffic, alongside the bridge for local option. I imagine there are other similar anomalies, locally defined, in our road system.

Lastly : let’s not overdo, nor make impulse decisions. Boston traffic arises from the Boston boom. It’s a consequence of prosperity and economic growth. Routing mistakes were made, in the 1930s and in the 1970s, even in the 1990s, yet it would be worse to override these now. Best to apply the principle of traffic equality and to not tax Boston resident car owners beyond the already burdensome excise tax and gas tax. We cannot require car owners to pay even more for the sake of public transportation, as a kind of punishment because the “progressives”: do not like cars. No traffic and transportation policy should ever try to punish one transportation preference in favor of another. It’s up to the people — and not to government — to decide which form of transportation they want to use.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere