Image by Tak Toyoshima
Last month, the Board of Directors for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) approved over $136 million in new development for the city.
According to a press release, “The projects, which represent a combined investment of $136.3 million, will result in over 400,000 square feet of development and an estimated 355 construction jobs.”
Under most circumstances, this kind of anticipated economic development would be cause for celebration, but if the history of development in Roxbury tells us anything, there is more to be concerned about than hopeful.
Two of the approved projects in Roxbury will be developed by the Madison Park Development Corp (MPDC) and the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). Between them, they will spend $81 million, with the former planning a 76-unit residential building. For that project, the MPDC will write $38 million in checks to vendors including various consultants and contractors, architects, attorneys, transportation planners, civil and environmental engineers, surveyors, and geotechnical experts.
As an advocate for Black and Latino businesses in Boston, I have looked into the sources and spoken with people behind the scenes at the MPDC project as well as at the BHA’s planned $44 million Whittier Choice development, and it appears that nearly all of the contracts for both projects will go to white-owned businesses.
This is an outrage! Those responsible for funding economic development have for the past quarter-century focused nearly all of their budgets on Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, and on subsidized housing for low-income people who are required to be poor in order to qualify for housing, and who must stay poor in order to maintain those arrangements. Not only does this process fail to satisfy the statute requiring that CDCs expand economic opportunities, but it fuels the kind of socioeconomic disasters and multi-generational poverty we all decried after reading recent reports by the Federal Reserve, the Brookings Institute, and the Boston Foundation. All these reports paint a dire, shameful, and dangerous picture of the economic reality facing more and more Black and Latino residents of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.
In Massachusetts, the law defines a community development corporation (CDC) as an organization whose purpose is to “engage local residents and businesses to work together to undertake … projects … which develop and improve urban … communities in sustainable ways that create and expand economic opportunities for low and moderate income people.” So you have to ask yourself: How can a CDC located in Roxbury, Dorchester, or Mattapan meet statutory requirements when its development team lacks Black and Latino businesses?
A check with some local and respected minority businesses such as Cruz Construction, Crosswinds Construction, Stull & Lee Architects, and the law offices of John Diaz indicated that none of them were even extended the courtesy to bid on or participate in the MPDC project. It’s a shame, because if you walk into any of their offices, you will see that they hire local residents and people of color.
CDCs have total control of who they put on their teams. In exercising this freedom, MPCDC and the BHA have chosen exclusion, and they’re not the exception. Dorchester Bay CDC, currently pursuing funding from Mass Housing Investment Corporation (MHIC) for a $60 million scattered site development project, also chose a white-led team to redevelop homes in areas of Dorchester where residents are overwhelmingly Black and Latino. Ironically, MHIC was created to provide for economic development projects targeting the minority communities—like Roxbury and Dorchester in particular—that were devastated according to the seminal report issued by the same Federal Reserve Board of Boston in early 1992. The report showed that widespread discrimination in lending to minority borrowers had led them to predatory and subprime lenders whose onerous terms led to thousands defaulting and losing their homes to foreclosure.
So how are CDCs in compliance with the law when they choose to consistently do business with white consultants and businesses? It’s easy—the funders don’t ask! The BRA doesn’t ask such questions before it approves projects. If other major public funders like the state Department of Housing and Community Development keep pumping hundreds of millions of tax dollars into projects done by these CDCs, the farce will continue—even though in 2010, the Massachusetts legislature created a formal process for certification that requires written affirmations that CDCs adhere to certain statutory requirements in the Massachusetts General Laws Ch. 40H. Nonprofit CDCs such as Madison Park, Dorchester Bay, Urban Edge, and Nuestra have each signed certifications stating that they are engaging Black and Latino residents in their economic development projects in a sustainable way, and that they have expanded economic opportunities for those groups. There is active discussion being had regarding the potential of class action legal redress against the CDCs for local residents denied opportunities, given the failure of the CDCs to comply with state law.
Case in point: Community residents, mostly Black and Latino, picketed the Madison Park-Tropical Foods project in Roxbury for almost a year due to its failure to hire locally. When MPDC finally sat down to negotiate, the resolution to which they agreed involved hiring local residents at substantially lower wages than their union laborer counterparts—a largely white group—with whom they worked shoulder-to-shoulder on the site.
MPDC has done very well for itself. As for the residents who live in the shadow of its Roxbury office—they haven’t fared so well. Many are homeless, and most are poorer than they were 10 years ago, as unemployment has risen for Black and Latino males between the ages of 18 and 44. According to the aforementioned Federal Reserve study, Black families have assets averaging $700 versus $256,500 for white families. The Brookings Institute reports that Boston’s poorest residents now have incomes that are 15 times less than their high-income counterparts, making for the third deepest disparity in America.
Imagine how the BHA might have actually expanded “economic opportunities” for minority residents in its Whittier initiative. For starters, it could have included any of the minority businesses mentioned previously, or others, on its core development team. By doing so, the BHA could have virtually guaranteed that Black or Latino residents of the immediate area would have been employed on the project because Black and Latino businesses hire Black and Latino residents. Instead, the residents of Whittier will be moved from one low-income housing development to another. The only thing that will change for them is their address.
In August, the Boston Globe printed an article listing the top 50 developers in Boston. Not surprisingly, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan are the only neighborhoods in the entire city where the top developers are CDCs. Every other neighborhood has for-profit developers, universities, and hospitals topping their lists. It is also worth noting that there is only one Black business (and no Latino businesses) on the list of 50 despite the fact that since the 2000 national census, Boston has become a city in which people of color are the majority. How many residents can these CDCs identify in their catchment areas who have seen their opportunities expanded due to their development activities as the statute requires?
Hundreds of millions of public dollars have been invested in affordable housing projects through MPDC and Dorchester Bay since the 2000s. And let’s not forget the $250 million project in Jackson Square done by Urban Edge and the Community Builders, which is still in development. Not only has nobody asked whether Urban Edge delivered on the legal requirements for CDCs, but the project was awarded millions of additional dollars by the state and city in the last two months. Total all of the investments via these community development projects over the past decade, and you’ll see how it’s possible to spend a billion dollars in Roxbury—without spending a dime on Roxbury.
Dianne Wilkerson is the president of the consulting firm New Day Services, Inc., a former 2nd Suffolk District State Senator, and an advocate for Black and Latino businesses in Boston. This is the first in a series of columns on which she is collaborating with DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.