Opinion | Alan Wirzbicki

A modest proposal for Boston on housing

A recently built affordable housing property in Roslindale features many modern design details, such as the butterfly roof, which is both eyecatching and serves to collect rainwater. JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE (Biz, Real estate, Correspondent) Library Tag 08032008 Homes
Affordable housing in Roslindale.

If Boston voters approve the Community Preservation Act in November, which would impose a new property tax surcharge to pay for parks, historic preservation, and affordable housing, here’s a modest proposal for the cash: Give it to the suburbs.

Likely? No. Politically feasible? Probably not. But spending some of the money outside Boston makes more sense than it seems at first blush. Why? Simply put, Boston itself doesn’t have an affordable housing problem. Greater Boston has an affordable housing problem. The city’s money would be better spent subsidizing affordable housing in parts of the region where it’s scarcest.

Boston already has almost twice as much affordable housing as state law requires, totaling around 18.3 percent of its housing stock, according to state figures. So why not finance developments in places like Brookline, now battling an affordable development near its high school, or Milton, where the town meets less than half its state affordable housing mandate?


That might well be a better outcome for some of the residents who end up living in the new housing; research shows benefits for low-income children, who gain access to strong school systems and safer neighborhoods. And, crucially, for Boston itself. Helping to even out the regional inequities that disadvantage the city could be a good use of city taxpayers’ money.

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Granted, opening the money to applicants outside Boston would cut against all the usual practices of both the Community Preservation Act and the city’s existing affordable housing programs. If conventional thinking prevails, the money would likely be pooled with the city’s linkage and inclusionary development programs, which have supported affordable developments in Boston itself.

But as well intentioned as those programs are, they have led to some unintended consequences. They tend to funnel affordable housing into already-poor areas, which can exacerbate economic and racial segregation. For instance, data from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau show that between 2005 and 2015, about 43 percent of linkage money went to projects in Roxbury and Dorchester, while less than 1 percent went to the Back Bay.

Elsewhere, localities have encountered trouble for channeling affordable-housing dollars to poorer areas. That practice was at the heart of a high-profile Texas case decided by the Supreme Court last year, when the state agency that distributes low-income housing tax credits was found to have allocated a disproportionate number of them to African-American neighborhoods in Dallas. That had the effect of concentrating poverty and denying blacks housing opportunities in richer areas — which is uncomfortably similar to how it looks when Boston targets linkage money from downtown developments for low-income housing in Roxbury.

The Commonwealth, meanwhile, has spent decades struggling to get the suburbs to build more affordable housing. The main state affordable housing law, Chapter 40B, allows developers to overcome restrictive zoning to build affordable housing under certain circumstances. But developers still need to find financing.


Offering a financial incentive to develop low-income housing in the suburbs — or, failing that, earmarking it specifically for wealthy areas of Boston like the Back Bay — may not change the overall housing map in Greater Boston much. (It also couldn’t consume the city’s entire Community Preservation Act budget, since state law requires that at least 10 percent of it go to parks and another 10 percent to historic preservation.) But the law does explicitly allow communities to consider regional projects. If Boston gains a new tool that could be used to help break down the region’s segregated housing patterns, why not use it?

Alan Wirzbicki is a Globe editorial writer. He can be reached at awirzbicki@globe.com.