If you lived here, you’d be broke by now
To get from one place to another in Boston, many commuters use the public transit system for commuter rail, subway, and bus route services. However, the tracks and lanes that are supposed to connect residents from their homes to their jobs and other destinations can have the opposite effect, stranding us and pushing people farther away from the city and essential services.
The MBTA has come under fire from transit activists and others for engaging in inequitable practices: cutting late-night weekend service, instituting fare hikes, and greenlighting development projects that gentrify neighborhoods and displace residents. Fanning the flames, on Feb 12, the MBTA released an analysis estimating a $111 million deficit by fiscal year 2019. To balance the budget, the agency has several options, many of which—like service cuts and fare increases—would likely place the system further out of reach of Greater Boston’s most vulnerable populations.
Justice organization Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), along with the T Riders Union, recently hosted a community discussion on the role the MBTA plays in gentrifying neighborhoods and on the impact of that on residents. According to Lee Matsueda, political director at ACE, “In the past, the major ways they’ve [MBTA] done it [addressed their deficits] … has been fare increases and service cuts. Those have been the major things that have taken a huge hit on riders and people who depend on public transit.”
When it comes to the methods the MBTA uses to address budget deficits, land sales are oftentimes hidden in plain sight, said Matsueda: “There are specific stories that we’re hearing about what the T is doing in our neighborhoods to make money. Selling off land, for example, in Mattapan.” As a significantly large landowner, Matsueda said that the MBTA has the power to develop tracts across the region. “[The MBTA] is transforming neighborhoods from Mattapan to Union Square and Chinatown,” Matsueda said, adding “Ruggles, Forest Hills, and Jackson Square” to the list.
The MBTA calls such projects transit-oriented development. They define TOD as “an approach to development that contributes to creating active, dense, walkable, mixed-use communities which center around transit and thereby increase transit usage.”
Asked to comment about equity in transit around here, MBTA spokesperson Lisa Battiston said, “MassDOT and the MBTA jointly adopted a TOD policy in June of 2017 to set forth a vision for smart growth on and near our transit stations. In general, future joint developments with at least 15 residential units on MassDOT- or MBTA-controlled property near transit will have a goal of at least 20 percent of the units being affordable to low-income and/or moderate-income households.” She added that MassDOT and MBTA planners partner with a wide range of entities on equitable TOD projects—from elected officials, to regional planning agencies, to public interest organizations and development communities.
Kimberly Barzola, transit justice organizer at ACE, points to Assembly Square as a major TOD. “If you’re going to build something like Assembly Square, which is a recent and great example of transit-oriented development, that’s on the Orange Line. That stop did not exist before,” Barzola said. “There’s retail, there’s also some housing there as well, but it’s mostly this massive shopping complex.”
A 2010 study conducted by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University looked at demographic shifts in neighborhoods across the country after new light rail and subway stations opened. It found that compared to the rest of the metro area, 60 percent of those areas saw an increase in average household income, while 70 percent saw rents rising faster than they had previously risen.
“Ironically,” Barzola said, “as income rose in those transit-centered neighborhoods, car ownership also became more common. … They [MBTA officials] are acknowledging it’s a problem not only just in transit-oriented development projects but in general. When you start investing in transit in certain areas, you’re going to see this upward pressure on the real estate because that’s what people want. … I think the next step, as people who are observing these trends, is what exactly does this translate into as far as what is the rent of these places? Who can afford these new housing situations?”
According to Barzola, the MBTA and the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA), though different agencies, work with one another in development projects. “They [BPDA and MBTA] are different stakeholders, but ultimately are working with each other in the sense that you’re creating this space that’s accommodating and welcoming for these private developers.”
The city defines affordable housing as having costs that “are at or below 30% of a household’s gross income.” Michael Prentice, community organizer at ACE, said the word “affordable” is used to describe housing that is not market-rate, which spans a wide spectrum. To determine income eligibility for government housing programs, area median income is used as a benchmark. For a family of four in Boston, the AMI is $98,000.
“The median income in 2017 was $103,000 a year for a family of four … In Roxbury, since we are the lower part of the spectrum of Boston’s earnings, we can’t afford the affordable housing,” Prentice said. “The BPDA averages a lot of their projects at around a family that needs $72,000 a year to afford.”
Prentice said that many units are built in Mattapan and Roxbury because that is where public land parcels are located. Plan Dudley Square is the latest development surge, according to Prentice. The neighborhood’s stuck with vacant land, and the city is capitalizing on that to jumpstart development in the private sector, he added.
“The city is in this development blitz to get rid of all these public land parcels in one go,” Prentice said. So the [BPDA] negotiated with the MBTA to acquire one of the parcels at Bartlett [Yard in Roxbury] that they are using to create an open-air shopping mall. They call it something nice, but it’s a mall essentially, with a bunch of housing that has a lot of affordable units. … It goes [on] a spectrum from 80 percent AMI down to 50 percent AMI.”
Prentice cautions against normalizing legalese. “Affordable housing, the legal definition, is usually a trap,” he said. “It’s usually misleading. And especially when we talk about workforce housing, that is a joke in terms of what working-class people can afford. That’s why it’s key to understand Roxbury as the final frontier of how this gentrification is going down, especially in Dorchester and Mattapan.”
Stacey Thompson, executive director at transportation advocacy organization LivableStreets Alliance, told DigBoston that the Hub’s inequitable transit system is worsened by poor zoning practices.
“Zoning and misallocation of how we use our space and how we require people to use our space is intimately linked to displacement,” Thompson said. “Improving transportation is a valuable asset for our community and it has value. … We would say that we need to improve transportation in under-resourced communities. As we increase development, heavily advocate for requiring mixed use, mixed income, and not just putting a bunch of low-income and middle-income units in a community that’s isolated.”
In ACE’s fight against transit-related gentrification, they hope to arm residents with knowledge of the MBTA’s complicated processes and with that knowledge, to create counter proposals.
“This isn’t an academic exercise for us,” Matsueda told DigBoston. “People’s lives are really deeply being affected by this problem. … There’s impact on families accessing healthcare when they get pushed further and further outside of the city and the city’s services they rely on. We can’t lose sight of the people who are directly affected by it.”
Olivia Deng is an arts and culture writer who also covers politics and social movements. Her work has appeared in DigBoston, WBUR, Boston Magazine, The Atlantic, Boston Art Review and more. She is also an illustrator and painter.