Roxbury neighbors spar over affordable housing

Sandra Larson | 3/5/2014, 10:06 a.m.
In many ways, the Bartlett Place development plans capture the many different aspirations of its Roxbury neighbors, with affordable and ...

Roxbury still struggles with low income and high unemployment, and thus a problematic issue is that the market price of Bartlett Place townhouses will likely be at least $400,000, based on the simple costs of construction.

Singleton acknowledges this price is out of reach for the majority of local residents and the homes could end up going to buyers from outside the community. But some locals, he insists, can buy at market rate.

“Do I think there are people ready? Absolutely. A lot? No,” he said. “But I put faith in the idea that people are living in Roxbury and waiting for an opportunity [to buy].”

Victoria Nadel, an attorney who lives in Mission Hill but is looking to buy a Highland Park home, concurs that Roxbury already holds its share of affordable housing.

“The scholarly research shows that having concentrations of affordable housing in certain areas has a negative effect,” she said. “What you really want is first rate, market rate housing, so people can invest in the neighborhood.”

Nadel argues that Roxbury residents shouldn’t be afraid of neighborhood improvements, which many fear will bring inevitable displacement of longtime residents.

“Why shouldn’t Roxbury be beautiful? Why shouldn’t we have cute storefronts supported by Main Streets?” she said. “We saw what happened in the South End, and I think what happened there is good. The neighborhood got safer and nicer, the shops provide jobs, and cafes provide foot traffic.”

But not everyone is ready to shun affordable housing — and not everyone sees the South End as a reassuring example.

“We need more affordable housing for people who live and work in Roxbury,” said Audrey Dickerson, a retired licensed independent clinical social worker and Roxbury native. She serves as board president of St. Joseph’s Community — a stone’s throw from the Bartlett Place site — and expressed support for the Bartlett Place plans. She bristles at the idea Roxbury has “too much” affordable housing.

“I don’t want to see Roxbury gentrify like the South End and Jamaica Plain. People who look like me need to be able to live in the community,” said Dickerson, who is of Afro-Cuban descent.

Former city councilor and longtime Roxbury activist Chuck Turner puts the issue in the larger historical and racial context, and in forceful terms.

“For a people who have spent 400 years here and been systematically robbed of our labor and value, to have a debate over whether those who can’t afford it should be thrown out does a disservice,” Turner said.

Turner cited income figures from the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts’s 2010 “State of Black Boston” report. The report paints a bleak picture, showing low home-ownership rates and a high foreclosure toll in Boston’s black community, higher unemployment among blacks, and a median black household income of $33,420, roughly half that of white households ($63,980).

“We have lower incomes as a people,” Turner said. “Half the families in our community don’t have enough money to afford a one-bedroom apartment. Does that mean the majority of us have to leave? If that’s the answer, then to hell with democracy — let’s admit that we as black people can spend 40 or 50 years building up a community and then get driven out because the people who own the houses we are renting decide they can sell them for more money.”