May this letter be received by the People of Boston as a call to action to claim ownership of the development process in their neighborhoods with the formation of independent resident boards,elected by the people of the neighborhood, that closely scrutinize every City land transfer and assert their power to regulate redevelopment in their neighborhoods.
In 2004, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) reportedly deceived the Boston City Council into relinquishing its legal jurisdiction over future extensions of the B R A’s Urban Renewal powers which were set to permanently expire. Since then, the B R A has received 17 years of continuous extensions through the year 2022. These powers give the B R A authoritarian like control over the redevelopment process in 14 Boston neighborhoods.
The “modern” version of the BRA’s Urban Renewal powers began in 1966 during a very different era, to revitalize a decaying city with a mass exodus of its citizens for the suburbs. A far cry from present day conditions in Boston.
Today in 2016, the 50th consecutive year of the B R A’s never ending urban renewal powers, we have a rampant displacement crisis throughout the City, along with an acute shortage of housing that’s truly affordable to Boston’s current residents. Perhaps though, those who the B R A and City leaders have failed most over these last 10 years of urban renewal, are the roughly 4,000 homeless BPS students, that just began their school year.
This is all taking place during the biggest real estate boom in the history of the City, at a time when, relatively speaking, we are more wealthy than at any point in the history of Boston, founded in 1630.
The City of Boston currently owns a substantial amount of vacant land in several of these urban renewal zones throughout Boston, any of which can be conveyed by the City to the B R A, behind closed doors at no cost, for disposition without any public process. Much of this land is assessed at pennies on the dollar relative to its real value in today’s white hot Boston real estate market.
The B R A can then take control over this City owned land, declare it “blighted” and lease it for redevelopment, at little to no cost to private developers, after tax payer funded public subsidies and long term tax breaks. The B R A, a non city agency, subject to no public oversight, which occupies the ninth floor of City Hall rent free, can then collect “lease” payments on the land for 65 - 99 years. This highly questionable process results in the People of Boston’s most valuable public asset, City owned land, being used to create private wealth for investors and developers.
Most of this land is in low income communities near subway stations, where land has never been more valuable to developers. A scenario that raises two pressing questions:
- What economic improvements has the B R A’s urban renewal powers yielded for these communities over the last 50 years, as most of this land sat vacant for several decades, during multiple real estate cycles ?
- Now that the land is in such high demand, in whose interest was the recent City Council vote to extend the B R A’s perpetual urban renewal powers, for yet another six years in conjunction with the Mayor’s housing plan ?
To be sure, many powerful people influence redevelopment in Boston, but in practical terms, the Mayor is effectively the only person in City government who can impact the activity of the B R A, as he appoints the B R A’s Director, its Deputy Directors, the Director of Planning and 4 of the 5 members of its board, which must approve all developments that include 15 or more units of housing. It is also widely accepted that historically, the Mayor of Boston has held great control over what gets built in this City.
During his election campaign, Candidate Marty Walsh, promised that ⅓ low income, ⅓ moderate income and ⅓ market rate housing would be built on any vacant City land. That has not happened however, under Mayor Marty Walsh. Also, his claims of record numbers of new affordable housing units make for great press releases in “imaginary” Boston, but in reality Boston, this abundance of so called “affordable” housing is actually unaffordable to 70% of the City’s current residents.
Although their vote may have been irrelevant due to the B R A’s legal manipulations in 2004, it’s important to note that 10 current City Councillors, voted “yes” for the recent six year extension of urban renewal in the face of virtually unanimous opposition from housing advocates and their own constituents in urban renewal zones across the City. The only “no” votes were cast by, Councillors Ayanna Pressley, Tito Jackson and Josh Zakim.
Then, we have the BRA’s current “master plans” to rezone large sections of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, so that the vast majority of the new housing could be built for people who earn over $ 60,000.00 a year, despite the fact that the area median income of the current neighborhood residents is closer to $ 30,000.00. In truth, these are master displacement plans, to make room for higher income future residents. These plans put profit over People. Can we accept that those in power will decide who is worthy enough to live in our City ? Or, that those with the least are being systematically forced out of this “next” Boston ? Instead of the wrecking ball of the 50’s and 60’s, the modern day BRA is allowing for Boston to be bulldozed by private capital flowing into the City from all over the globe.
The original urban renewal laws mandated the establishment of resident boards, elected by the People of each urban renewal zone, that have the final say on any redevelopment in their neighborhoods. Currently, instead of the boards being chosen by neighborhood residents, the Mayor appoints the members of these boards. It’s time for the People to take the power back.
Finally, we see the extension of urban renewal as simply more arrogant disenfranchising of thousands of people’s collective voices in the future of their neighborhoods. We view the BRA relaunch as an insult to all Bostonians. A public relations stunt and weak attempt to gloss over the BRA’s six decade legacy of devastation in Boston. We believe that, the continued existence of the BRA - under any name, or mission statement - is an imminent threat to the financial and social well being for over 400,000 people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds in the City of Boston.
Respectfully submitted to the People of Boston by the undersigned, on behalf of The People’s Housing Board Coalition
Nino Brown, Terra Friedrichs, Linda Jenkins, Paul Johnson,Mel King, Shirley Kressel, Jason Lowenthal, Savina Martin, Gerry Scoppettuolo, James Shearer, Bishop Filipe Teixeira, Chuck Turner and Reverend Vernon Walker