42-44_Woodbine_8-13-10_001_compressedRoxbury is ground zero for the gentrification debate in Boston, and perhaps nationally.  It’s on everyone’s mind.  Recently our community newspaper published a well-researched piece exploring the luxury housing boom and its impact on Roxbury, a working class majority-minority community of 48,500 experiencing significant new investment in our Dudley Square neighborhood business district.

To date, no one in Boston has advanced a comprehensive strategy to combat gentrification in at-risk neighborhoods like Roxbury.  And that’s beyond the scope of this post.  My goal here is to advance a set of definitions and policies for consideration and conversation.

In this post I’ll try to convey Nuestra Comunidad’s understanding of what gentrification is; some income category definitions; what gentrification could mean for Roxbury; and seven policies that could prevent or mitigate gentrification in our community.

Defining gentrification.  “Gentrification” can mean different things for different people, including new local investment, an increase in incomes, rising home prices or rents, a different occupational mix,  higher educational level and/or a new race/ethnicity mix. I use gentrification to refer to revitalization and reinvestment causing a relatively sharp in crease in rents and home values in low- and moderate-income urban neighborhoods resulting in actual or imminent displacement of residents. To the extent that residents can reap the benefits of .rising home values, educational levels and incomes; new small business and job opportunities; and improved credit scores and lower loan delinquency rates; that’s not gentrification, it’s just good community development.

977495_465030743573296_99737576_oIt is important to agree upon a key indicator that measures when a neighborhood is at-risk of gentrification and can serve as a “trigger” for investment of resources to prevent or mitigate displacement.  I like economist Daniel Hartley’s key indicator:  a neighborhood is gentrifying if it is located in the central city of a metropolitan area and it goes from being in the bottom half of the distribution of home prices in the metropolitan area to the top half.  By that standard, since 1999, a quarter of Boston’s residents have experienced gentrification of their neighborhood, making ours the fastest gentrifying city in the U.S.

Defining income categories.  I find it helpful to look at the community’s income mix across five main categories, as shown in the following table.

Definitions of Income Categories 

Income Categories

Area Median Income Range

Income for
hh of 3

Very low-income Below 30% of AMI below $25,410
Low-income 30% to 59% of AMI up to $50,820
Moderate-Income 60% to 79% of AMI up to $67,760
Middle-Income 80% to 120% of AMI up to $101,640
Market Over 120% of AMI over $101,640
Source:  HUD FY2014 Boston area AMI

Very low-income refers primarily to homeless and formerly-homeless residents and is typically measured by incomes below 30% of the metro area median income (AMI).  Residents with incomes below 60% of AMI qualify as low-income under most government housing subsidy sources, including the low-income housing tax credit program.  Most folks between 30% and 60% AMI have jobs.  Some government funds support moderate-income households between 60% and 80% of AMI, like the federal HOME and CDBG program.  No federal programs support the many middle-income residents with incomes from roughly $60,000 to $100,000 (roughly 80% to 120% AMI) who are now being priced out of Roxbury and Boston.  The City of Boston could choose to build middle-income housing using local linkage and inclusionary zoning funds, but has not yet announced such a program.

A gentrified Roxbury.  Roxbury is poised to suffer the effects of gentrification.  Housing prices are rising significantly (see my post last year at http://urlin.it/55e41).  The 2010 census shows that, after decades of flat population and housing growth, since 2000 Roxbury added 2,200 new housing units and 6,970 new residents, including 4,400 more white residents.

We don’t have to speculate about what could happen to Roxbury over the next few decades if  new investment and revitalization cause displacement.  We’ve seen it happen next door in the South End.  Thirty years ago, the South End was very similar to Roxbury today in terms of income mix, housing stock and race/ethnicity mix.  In fact, much of what is now known as the South End was called Roxbury as recently as the 1980’s.  We can see Roxbury’s future right now.

What will Roxbury look like if displacement occurs?  Applying today’s income mix in the South End to Roxbury’s population, here’s one possible outcome for Roxbury’s income mix in two decades or so:

Roxbury Incomes Today & After Gentrification 

Roxbury Today

After Gentrification

Income Categories

# of hh

% of hh

# Change

% Change

Very low-income






























Sources: BRA census data, 2007-2011 ACS Survey.  Assumes no change in total number of households.

Roxbury could see a giant swing in population, losing 5,000 low-income households and gaining 5,200 upper-income households, with a middle-income population representing less than 20% of the community.

Similar changes could occur in our race/ethnicity mix. Applying the South End’s current demographic makeup to Roxbury, here is a possible outcome for Roxbury in two decades or so:

Roxbury Race/Ethnicity Today & After Gentrification 

Roxbury Today

After Gentrification


# of hh

% of hh

# Change

% Change





















2+ categories















Source: BRA 2010 census data. Assumes no change in total number of households.

As you can see, a post-gentrification Roxbury could lose almost 10,000 African-American and Latino households, and gain around 8,100 white households. Roxbury would be a majority white neighborhood.

Seven policies to prevent or mitigate gentrification. Here are seven policy initiatives drawn from recent studies and articles that could be part of a community stabilization agenda using smart growth and equitable investments in order to prevent or mitigate gentrification in Roxbury and other at-risk neighborhoods in Boston.

  • Policy1 : Aggressively build middle-income housing. Thousands of middle-income households today cannot afford to rent or buy in Roxbury. New construction home prices are at $550,000, requiring an income of $150,000 to buy. The city is selling its stock of small vacant lots to developers to build middle-income housing, but that’s not nearly enough to prevent displacement. We need a much more aggressive middle-income housing production program including investment of City subsidies (see my recommendations at http://urlin.it/56bde). The city should resist calls to devote all of the city’s housing resources in low-income housing production (see my post at http://urlin.it/5765a).
  • Policy 2: Reduce or freeze property taxes to protect long-time residents. Major cities are considering tax programs to help retain long-time homeowners in at-risk neighborhoods. In Boston, the City Council recently passed a bill allowing homeowners whose taxes have grown by 10% or more to defer property tax payments until they sell. Approval of the state legislature is required.
  • Policy 3: Protect senior homeowners. In Boston, a major concern is that low- and moderate-income seniors are choosing to sell because they cannot afford rising property taxes in gentrifying neighborhoods and cannot afford the upkeep on their homes The city should dramatically increase funding for existing senior home repair programs, and these programs should prioritize gentrifying neighborhoods. The existing property tax deferral available for Boston seniors with incomes under $55,000 should be vigorously marketed in gentrifying neighborhoods. Seniors owning and living in 2- and 3-family homes in at-risk areas should be rewarded for keeping rents affordable.
  • Policy 4: Prohibit large-scale luxury development in at-risk neighborhoods. The single biggest cause of displacement is large-scale, high-cost housing development. Boston should accordingly promote small- and medium-scale, mixed-income development in at-risk neighborhoods like Roxbury, and forbid market-rate, large-scale development. One possible standard for “large-scale” is the “large project” definition under Article 80 of the Boston zoning code: construction or rehab of 50,000 SF or more in floor area. “Market rate” should refer to developments with 75% or more unrestricted units, so that developers can’t avoid the ban by adding a few affordable units.
  • Policy 5:  Create a stabilization voucher.  Some community development advocates propose that the federal government create a new type of housing voucher, to be awarded to long-time residents of low-income communities to help them stay when gentrification poses a risk. I call this a stabilization voucher, because it retains low-income residents to help stabilize communities by avoiding displacement.
  • Policy 6:  Change the fair housing rules.  In order to provide federal resources disproportionately in at-risk majority-minority neighborhoods, such as the stabilization voucher described above, the fair housing rules need to be re-written.   Traditional fair housing rules can discourage equitable investment in at-risk neighborhoods, based on policies opposing concentrations of poverty and favoring relocation to suburban “opportunity communities”.  Fair housing instead should affirmatively promote equitable investment in emerging urban opportunity communities–the neighborhoods of color at-risk of gentrification.
  • Policy 7:  Production! According to the Metro Area Planning Council, we have to build 14,000 units a year in order to meet the demand for housing in metro Boston.  However, actual annual production has ranged from 4,000 to 9,000 units.  In the long term, the only way to meet demand and stop gentrification is to make it much easier to build more housing in Boston and the region.  Even new luxury housing will help meet this goal, but these developments should be confined to Boston’s high-cost ghettos—Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Fenway, the Seaport and downtown (after carving out a buffer zone protecting Chinatown).

Finally, apart from the policy discussion, the gentrification conversation has to be framed around the underlying issues of power and race that created inequitable development here and make gentrification possible. Roxbury has to own a vision and strategy for community stabilization that changes the balance of power and transfers equity to tenants, homeowners and businesses..

Let’s crowd-source a community stabilization strategy for Roxbury, and all of Boston!  To join in that conversation, follow me on Twitter @nuestradavid.

Additional sources:

  • Boston Redevelopment Authority census summary Roxbury 2000 & 2010 http://urlin.it/53f17
  • Miriam Axel-Lute, A Concrete Proposal to Address Gentrification, Jan 17 2014 http://urlin.it/56b1f
  • Rick Jacobus, It’s Not Either/Or:  Neighborhood Development Can Prevent Gentrification, Shelterforce July 18 2013 http://urlin.it/56b44
  • Laura Sullivan report, Gentrification May Actually Be Boon to Long-time Residents, NPR Jan 22 2014 http://urlin.it/56b47
  • The New Boston Needs to be Built for More Than the Rich, Boston Business Journal editorial, Jan 24 2014 http://urlin.it/56c21
  • Timothy Williams, Cities Mobilize to Help Those Threatened by Gentrification, NY Times 3/3/14 http://urlin.it/579aa
  • Daniel Hartley, Gentrification and Financial Health, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland 11/6/13 http://urlin.it/579e5
  • Ellen Cushing, The Things That People Do to Fight Gentrification Are Actually Making the Problem Worse, San Francisco magazine online 2/25/14 http://urlin.it/57a1a
  • Scott VanVoorhis, Boston is a Hot Spot for Gentrification, Boston.com 3/9/14 http://urlin.it/57b43
  • Yawu Miller, Luxury Housing Booming, Middle Class Gets Squeezed, BayState Banner 4/3/14 urlin.it/582e2