^ future Boston : high water, a market economy, and mobility liberty
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Often I have written about the many challenges that prosperity has brought to Boston but singly rather than together. Let me now attempt to offer a unified plan for the next twenty years or so of Boston governance.
One can sum up the riddle quite simply : ( 1 ) wages and salaries have not kept up with — not even close to — the rising prices of housing ( 2 ) the Mayor’s call for 69,000 new units of housing by 2030 bumped the acquisition price of buildable land by double, even triple ( c ) ( 3 ) the movement of enterprise and jobs into Center City put unanticipated bnurdens on the MBTA and the City’s roads ( 4 ) as jobs moved into Downtown, so did those holding them, followed by shops, restaurants, and bars serving their social needs and commute routes ( 5 ) the coming of Uber and Lyft, to meet those commute needs, put thousands of ride-share cars onto Boston’s streets and ( 6 ) climate change is upon us, requiring structural responses to water control in this very coastal city
As no one — I hope — wants the City’s current prosperity to backslide, but instead to continue, solutions are in order to the radical rearrangements occasioned by the prosperity.
I would hope that everyone involved would want to see workable solutions, but the baleful influence of political agendas puts such a wish in serious doubt. We see, for example, one City Councillor — who would like to be Mayor — calling for the T to be free and “equitable,” whatever that means, and to “unite us all.” I’m sorry, but the T is only one component of a serious Boston plan, and not by any means the most important or pressing, although its upgrade and modernization is certainly a priority for the State. Keep in mind that most of the goods that Boston customers purchase move b y rail and truck. None moves by the T. Only people move by the T, and not all of the people., perhaps only a minority of us. The Councillor who would be Mayor would like to tax car users hard enough to force them onto the T — thereby removing cars’ carbon emissions from the climate, a serious policy goal for said Councillor — and of course the more people said Councillor can feed into the T’s maw, the more grumping can be generated against the Governor whom the Councillor’s supporters and colleagues do not like, all to the political benefit, they hope, of their movement.
So much for the political impediment to a sensible, workable Boston plan. But if we are not to move Boston in the T-only, car-penalizing, future that said Councillor envisions — complete with free T rides, forcing the entire T finance onto state taxpayers — then what future do I suggest for a sustained prosperous Boston ? This :
( a ) support unions in their actions to drive workers’ wages higher, much higher. To live in Prosperity Boston, one needs to earn at least the current median city income : $ 60,000 a year. We can’t legislate a minimum wage particular only to Boston, although we can — and should — legislate an even higher minimum wage than the current $ 12 to $ 15/hour scheduled to take full effect by 2023; but unions can win company-specific, or industry-specific, contracts that achieve the $ 21/hour and more that Boston workers should earn.
( b ) accept greater residential density than the current norm, including micro apartments and tiny houses, and higher structures than current zoning allows. Land acquisition costs are what they are, whether the buyer builds three stories, or five, or eight, or twelve. Thus the large impact that land costs have on current development can be minimized by allowing taller buildings, so that more units can be built on the same lot of land. There is no economic reason why it HAS TO cost a builder $ 500,000 per unit to build. Lower the effects of land acquisition cost, and you can lower the rents or sale prices that a builder has to charge.
( c ) eliminate dedicated bus and bike lanes on City streets. Boston’s streets are narrow enough. Even the main streets in its outer neighborhoods are only so wide. Hiving off lanes for bikes or buses, or for both, is a favoritism that car users — the majority of us — rightly resent. If “Transportation equity,” a term that some reformers talk of, means anything, it means that all forms of “mobility” operate in the same arena, with no favor given to any. You want to relieve some of the traffic that clogs City streets and highways at peak hours ? The last way to do this is to jam car users into smaller and smaller portions of those streets and highways.
( 4 ) go with the flow rather than fighting it. Measures that seek to impede the effects of big buyer money on the City’s residential economy only divert money/ from one pocket to another. Much smarter to let the price market “work the numbers,” because eventually — maybe soon — the “numbers” will peak. There are signs that these numbers are already peaking. But if not — yet — is it so bad that property owners who invested in Boston when prices were way too low — a thing few of us were ready to admit to, or insure against — and who never had much money or equity other than their property now find themselves blessed with a lottery ticket of money ? Those who are buying are buying from US, not from a stranger. Meanwhile, the new buyers are assuming all kinds of price risk : for markets fall as well as rise, and economies change, and those who buy a three-decker for $ 1,300,000 know they have to find a way out, sooner rather than later. The coming of 10,000 housing units in the new Suffolk Downs, with a meager 5.7 percent rate of return for the investor, has to warn current buyers that the boom is aging. In fact, as I see it, any sensible plan for future Boston should confront the question : what happens to property when the boom turns down ? The history of such turns is not pretty. Take a look at Detroit these past 25 years as an extreme example. When Boston moves into this sort of phase — as it surely will — our future residents will long for the Prosperity Days.
( 5 ) end the Federal Court’s Busing Order so that community schools can revive. Busing serves no one any more. Every Boston neighborhood is now racially and cultural;ly diverse. You can’t have community without community schools, and if you have community schools, families with school age children won’t up and move out of the City, as they have been doing in large numbers since the late 1970s. The most significant reform we can make to the vast Boston Public Schools (BPS) budget ( $ 1.27 billion in FY 2020) would be to repurpose the $ 96,000,000 now spent on busing kids as dictated by the obsolete Federal order.
( 6 ) do not rely chiefly on the T for all our “mobility” urges. The T only goes where it wants to go and only when it wants to go there. Using the T also involves standing and waiting in all kinds of weather. It often means being crushed in overcrowded trains and buses. The T should be a last resort, not a first. I use it only when I have to go Downtown — which is often — because one simply cannot park a car Downtown except at enormous cost even assuming that one can find an available parking spot. The T is OK for commuting from home to a job, and for the young, who don’t mind ugly weather or crushing in overcrowds, the T can even be fun. Given our T expectations, its a wonder that it works at all; upgrades can basically only be done during the night hours, otherwise major disruption results. I certainly favor expanding the Orange Line to Readville, and the Blue Line to Lynn, and I like the coming Red Line to Blue Line connector. The T definitely has a role to play in the future of Boston people’s moving about. But it is a very rigid system in a culture and economy that correctly values flexibility and liberty. Roads are by far the more useful option for most of us.
( 7 ) we must meet the rising ocean, but people can do it a lot more innovatively than government. I have a lot more confidence in ad hoc, activist groups like The Harborkeepers, to find and put into practice ways of controlling the coming years of high water than I do in government agencies. Controlling high water should not be a subject for political manoeuver. It is rather a challenge for architects, greenspace planners, and, yes, waterside property owners. In this fight, the City is only one among many communities faced with water encroachment. Regional planning can help, but the burden should first fall on those who own property that will either be flooded or safeguarded. I think the owners know best, and if not, then self-starting activists should and will step in, quite beneficially, because these organizations are not bound by pre-existing rules, and they correctly confide in the imaginations of people who think for themselves.
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One other point I wish to make : Boston in the decades from 1970 to 2000 built a ton of senior-citizen housing. I am not a fan of this sort of custodial, supervised living, but it proved a boon to older folks whose kids moved out and away, leaving their parents abandoned in run-down homes and apartments. The City also provides homeowner residents a substantial real estate tax credit. A similar credit should be granted to seniors. (it may already be, I am not sure.) That said, a senior lucky enough to own a Boston home today sits on a pretty substantial fund : at least $ 400,000, more likely a price of $ 700,000 to $ 2,000,000. I find these sorts of situations every day that I door knock in Council District Five for a candidate I am supporting. Given the state’s homestead exemption of $ 500,000, and the prevalence of very low income seniors living thusly, with all manner of home health aides to visit and serve their daily needs, including for company, the current boom gives these old and even very old Bostonians plenty of options for at least financial ease without having to move into a large residential institution in which institutional culture dominates, even suffocates individual liberty.