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Income disparity squeezed middle class out of Boston’s South End

Yawu Miller | 4/30/2014, 9:35 a.m.
With million-dollar condominiums being built in new luxury complexes, the South End’s real estate is out of reach of many middle class buyers. Efforts to develop housing for middle-income families ground to a halt in the early ‘90s due to a lack of government support. Banner Photo

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Banner Photo

The South End’s population is relatively diverse, but the class differences in the neighborhood often mean there’s little interaction between the white majority and the smaller populations of Asians, Latinos and blacks.

The idea behind the South End Neighborhood Housing Initiative was straightforward enough — one third of all housing built on public land was to be affordable, one third moderate income and one third market rate.

Hatched in the 1980s during the administration of former Mayor Raymond Flynn, the plan was aimed at preserving the middle class and low-income residents in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

But in the end, only a handful of housing developments were built using the formula and SENHI died quietly during the early years of the administration of former Mayor Thomas Menino. And with it went any hopes of preserving the middle class in the South End.

“The South End is probably richer now than it was when it was built,” says state Rep. Byron Rushing, whose district includes most of the neighborhood. “The thing we never understood was how rich people were going to become. The people who are moving into the South End now are buying all the condos in a building and turning them into single-families.”

South End history

The South End was originally constructed in the mid-1800s when city planners filled in the tidal marshes that surrounded the narrow strip of land connecting Roxbury to Boston. Bankers, business owners and other upper middle class professionals populated the neighborhood in its early years, but housing values began declining in the 1880s.

Throughout most of its history the neighborhood was home to blacks, Jews, Italians, Lebanese, Armenians and other immigrants. As white flight intensified in the 1950s and ‘60s, the neighborhood became majority black. In the ‘70s, Latinos began moving in.

Also in the ‘70s, white professionals began moving into the neighborhood, attracted by its Victorian-era housing stock. By the 1980s, gentrification began to take hold of the neighborhood, with many of the townhouses in the South End rapidly converting into condominiums.

The first mixed-income development

It was Tent City, a housing development built on the site where the Boston Redevelopment Authority had planned a mall and luxury housing, where the one third, one third, one third formula was first applied.

“It was a movement and community vision that started in the ‘60s,” says David Price, former executive director of the Tent City Community Development Corporation. “Mel King advanced a vision for the development in the 1983 election. Ray Flynn adopted the vision and completed it.”

Other developments that were built with supports for moderate-income tenants and buyers include Langham Court and Roxbury Corners.

But in the end, city officials walked away from the SENHI agreement.

“It was hard for the city to commit the resources to SENHI because they would have to take funding away from low-income housing,” says Price, who now heads the Nuestra Comunidad Community Development Corporation. “The result is what you see today with a polarized income distribution in the South End.”

The low-income population in the South End lives primarily in large, low-income developments owned or managed by community development corporations, the Boston Housing Authority or other nonprofit entities.