Boston is an ever-evolving city with a rich history. Along with its scholastic renown, it is a hub for enterprise, social and cultural diversity, and leisurely activity. Within the bustling city, everything from towering corporate buildings to quaint townhouses share street corners. Though the residents of Boston are just a bus or train ride away from world-class schools, medical centers, and cultural institutions, considerable changes in the cost of living and rapid development are uprooting the communities that have inhabited Boston for decades. Boston’s housing market has seen a prominent rise in prices; both rents and home values have nearly doubled since 2011, according to a Warren Group study on the dramatic rise of local living costs.
Gentrification caused displacement of certain populations is tied to the history of racial and financial discrimination in real estate. The United States is a place severely affected by systematic racism, and Boston is no different. Red-lining in Boston was done by color-coding a map during the 1930s. Blue and green were for the areas that were considered “good“. The areas in red were places that were predominantly populated by Black people, therefore “bad”, which included Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. This left these neighborhoods and communities underdeveloped and now they are currently the most gentrified neighborhoods in Boston.
According to a study on Neighborhood Demographics, in the 1960s Black/African-American people were most prominent in Roxbury with 52.8% of respondents identifying as African-American, and 46.5% of respondents identifying as White. 0.7% of respondents identified as ‘other’. And these statistics haven’t changed much, with Black Americans still making up the majority of Roxbury’s inhabitants. The big difference between now and then is the communities that have been there for the longest are slowly being pushed out by the rising cost of living. Numbers and Roxbury, however, are not the only perspective of this story.
Theresa Claybourn, 79, is a resident of East Boston near the Maverick MBTA station and has witnessed all of the area’s changes. The Maverick station had a second entrance added recently for better access to new market-rate housing units built along the Harbor. Claybourn, speaking to us from a wire rocking chair in the patch of grass outside her apartment building, noted that many problems occurred when the new developments sprang up in her neighborhood.
“When I moved in here, [management] said you can do anything you want. Now, after I’ve been here so long, everything is starting to change now. You can’t do this, can’t do that. I say, ‘What’s going on here?’”
The new restrictive policies around tenant activity were not the only problem Claybourn noticed; she pointed out that her apartment building was heavily infested with rats when a new construction project started a few years ago.
She also, however, thought that some good things had happened to her area in the last decade or so that were attributable to the new buildings: “Now it seems like there’s less crime, and people seem to be getting along better with each other.”
Gentrification doesn’t just force original tenants out — it makes life hard far before that for those most likely to be affected, as restrictive housing policies spring up before the rise in home value to make the new tenants ‘comfortable’ — and perhaps to pressure the old ones into leaving early.
Gentrification’s impacts stretch beyond the redevelopment of housing and the displacement it prompts. The spread of real estate evolution transforms all types of buildings and institutions. More specifically, gentrification can displace not only people, but important community centers, and more recently in Boston, places of worship have been bought out by developers due to both financial and social pressures.
The movement of city churches that are designed to be as accessible as possible for residents can push people out of a neighborhood. Boston has become a prime example of desacralization as many of its historic churches are displaced or closed due to the effects of gentrification.
Churches that have served primarily African-American and Latin communities are extremely vulnerable to financial pressure. In South Boston, Ebenezer Baptist Church was recently bought out in 2021 after over a century of worship. It was the first church founded by formerly enslaved people in 1871. When an inspection was conducted on the historic building, it was “concluded that the building was unsafe to continue using without expensive renovations, the pastor and leadership team of Ebenezer Baptist then had no choice but to sell the building to a luxury condo developer because the needed renovations were not affordable. Despite its historic value and its significance to the Baptist community within South Boston, this place of worship was not protected or preserved.
Development becomes an issue when the integrity of a community isn’t preserved. When centers of worship in neighborhoods move, the character of the community changes as well, these places often serve as havens and centers to connect for a community, as well as places that have not only cultural but historical significance. It is important to note that housing displacement is not the only type of change development causes, religious and community dislodgement occurs as well.
Though development is considered a positive, the reality of real estate change is the displacement of people, as the market rate of homes and apartments drops in affordability over time, low-income families are often pushed out of their communities. RentCafe highlights that in Boston- 65% of people rent and only 35% own homes. Specifically, of the 35% of Bostonians that own homes, 44% of them are White, while 30% are Black, and only 27% are Latino.
Though property taxes have almost doubled for Boston homeowners in the past ten years, homeownership is one of the better defenses against the effects of gentrification. But the majority of Boston’s low-income inhabitants are overwhelmingly not homeowners and are more susceptible to the effects of gentrification.
However, not all hope is lost as there are people out there doing the best they can to help keep their community members. Denisse Viera, a 25-year-old resident of East Boston, has lived in the house her family owns her whole life. It is a multi-family home and her family’s goal involves renting their property out to families at affordable rates despite the rising cost of living within East Boston.
Growing up, she has seen a plethora of changes in her neighborhood, in an interview, she notes that “there used to be a lot of Spanish people, to be honest, when I grew up here, and now I’m seeing more of a flux of other ethnicities coming up here.” East Boston has seen a dramatic increase in housing development in the past few years, along with the diversity that these changes have encouraged, a lot of the original residents have been pushed out, and these changes are ongoing. Viera highlights that “there’s always new buildings around every corner,” and construction is seemingly endless.
Though Viera’s family aims to stay affordable for lower-income East Boston residents who would most likely be pushed out by recent developments, they too have felt the pressure of property taxes because of their home ownership. These costs have raised so much that Viera’s family “had to raise the rent on some of our tenants” even though they are “very aware of the situation” and “try to rent at a reasonable price and to lower-income households”.
Viera and her family are conscious of the effects of the gentrification around them and use their homeownership as a way to combat the detrimental effects that development has on low-income families in Boston.
Homeowners and landlords with the flexibility to provide affordable rates for low-income and displaced families should do so. It’s the consciousness and kindness of those in power when it comes to the cost of living crisis in Boston that can truly make a difference and reduce the harm caused by gentrification. But we cannot place the burden of alleviating the effects of gentrification on individuals as the issue is much larger than them.
In our current organization of the economy, cities are most desirable for people to move to, whether it’s for finding work, advancing their career, or just being in a more convenient place. These changes to the landscape open opportunities for other kinds of employment. Construction firms play a huge role in the redevelopment of neighborhoods, and the people that work for them are some of the most interesting parts of the process.
Stephen Terp, 64, is a construction worker who is employed on one of the new building sites in East Boston. His current project involves the construction of a new assisted-living center for the elderly.
He says that he’s worked in construction since he was 20, and lives for the satisfaction it gives him. “When you start the product off it looks like that, with staging around it, but when it’s completed and you get a chance to see it, you go well, I did that,” he explained to us outside of his work site. A modern housing compound, yet to open, is located next to a combination apartment and corner store in the background. Both are hemmed in by construction.
When asked about his feelings on Gentrification, Stephen said that he thought construction certainly played a role in the process of shifting neighborhood demographics and wealth. But he believed there was more to the story.
“I think it’s greed actually,” he elaborates. “People who want to buy property instead of getting the people to invest in it, they charge higher prices, they get a different higher class of people that come in, which drives out everybody else. I think it ruins neighborhoods. It brings in somebody different who’s not in this neighborhood that wants to bring people up, and they want to bring the traditions of East Boston back.”
“I think rent should be the same as they were years ago with the, with the economy, you know,” he adds. “It should fluctuate with that. But it shouldn’t skyrocket [to] where the people who live here have to move out.”
Stephen also reflects on his past and how much Boston has changed in the time that he’s lived here, and how his parent’s old house in Brighton, which they bought for just over $24,000, is now “going for almost a million. I couldn’t afford that.” And precious few in Brighton could.
There’s no easy solution to gentrification. There may not be a good one out there. But people can certainly be more informed and aware of the city and the way it changes. Exploring out in the city and interacting with the residents, construction workers, and landlords will remind you that many of Boston’s residents don’t know much about gentrification. The first step to combating gentrification is being informed about the situation itself, and how you or someone you know could be affected by it.