Op-Ed: Protect Dorchester’s future by planning for growth

By Sean Wheeler, Jarred Johnson, and Jenn Cartee

Can Dorchester grow without sacrificing its identity?

A few weeks ago, we posed that question at a networking event organized for a diverse, multiracial group of Dorchester residents - young and old, newcomer and long-term - just like the neighborhood.

Among many perspectives and opinions, everyone in our group recognized one incontrovertible fact: Dorchester is becoming an increasingly expensive place to live. Perhaps we haven’t changed as dramatically in appearance as South Boston, but people have taken notice of new buildings and new residents, as well as increasing housing costs. Our neighborhood character and neighborhood identity feel at risk - including the lived experience of diversity that makes Dorchester such a special place.

In response to this challenge, we take the stance of radical inclusion. We believe there can be, and should be, room for all in Dorchester if we meet the challenge of growth head-on.

We are launching a new civic group, Dorchester Growing Together, to be a catalyst for local pro-housing advocacy. We will work with existing civic groups and affordable housing advocates, but we organize around the principle that Boston shouldn’t have to choose between economic growth and housing affordability for all. Our purpose is to support more housing of all types - within Dorchester, throughout Boston, and in surrounding communities.

Why do we advocate for new development? Because Dorchester can no longer afford the status quo. Since 1994, Boston’s population has increased 25 percent, but the city has not built new housing at the same rate of growth. Current housing prices reflect this disparity. In 1994, the median price for a three-decker was $126,000 in today’s dollars. Today, a three-decker can sell for over $900,000. Similarly, rents in three-deckers - for newcomers and incumbent residents alike - have risen from about $650 in 1994 to $2000+ today. Boston’s population growth will continue, putting our neighborhood at risk of even higher housing costs, since unwillingness to build only forces residents and newcomers into a competition for existing housing stock.

We believe that nuance is important in the discussion, and we must share the benefits and challenges of growth fairly, especially in a neighborhood as big and diverse as Dorchester. We recognize that simply adding housing supply does not go far enough. We believe in tenant protections, affordable housing creation, and innovation to lower the cost of building units. We believe that adding mixed income developments, with truly affordable housing and unsubsidized low-cost units, is a way to bring investment into the community without raising rents. We believe that saying yes to housing doesn’t mean saying yes to every project without neighborhood feedback.

So how can you help Dorchester grow? The most effective way is to show up in support of new housing at development and re-zoning meetings, such as the effort underway at Glover’s Corner. If you are unable to attend meetings, there are other ways that individuals can help:

• During a project’s comment period, write to the BPDA to support projects that increase density in higher-priced areas of Boston most in demand among new buyers.

• Get active in your local neighborhood association, especially if you are a newcomer or a renter. (Homeowners and long-term residents are often disproportionately represented in these groups.)

• Help soften the adversarial stance that can arise between developers and residents, and work with developers to positively shape projects in your neighborhood. Talk through neighborhood concerns around development - such as parking, traffic, and noise concerns - to identify concrete issues for mediation.

Finally, we believe that Dorchester has always tried to make the best of change, in good times and bad. The preponderance of three-deckers in what was once the orchards and estates of the landed gentry is testament to our neighborhood’s history of pragmatism and constructive response to the realities of constant urban change. We believe that Dorchester can indeed grow without sacrificing its identity. In the process, we can help shape the forces of change to produce new housing that leads to more positive and equitable outcomes.

Sean Wheeler, Jarred Johnson, and Jenn Cartee are among the founding members of Dorchester Growing Together, a new Dorchester pro-housing collective. For more information, email the group at info@dotgrow.org to join their mailing list, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.