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Working to keep people in their own homes

Lydia Lowe

We are leaders of local community organizations, working to stabilize the future of our neighborhoods and communities, particularly in Greater Boston communities of color, who have come together to say that we need an affordable housing strategy that includes saving the homes we have.

This week, an article in the Boston Globe noted that a household would need to earn $181,000 a year to be able to afford the average purchase price of a Boston home. By now, we probably all know the much-cited figure that the median net worth of a white family in Boston is $247,500, compared to a median net worth of a Black family at $8.

A growing public awareness of the housing affordability crisis as well as the racial wealth gap has led to a higher priority on first-time homebuyer assistance as well as affordable housing production, both important goals and strategies. Yet what has been largely missing from the conversation is this: What if we worked harder to keep people in the homes they already have?

Across the commonwealth, community land trusts and community development corporations are working to acquire properties and preserve existing housing as affordable housing, for both home ownership and rental units. In the case of community land trusts, we create permanent affordability through community ownership of the land.

Preserving affordable housing is generally faster, less expensive and more environmentally friendly than relying on new production alone. It usually requires no zoning relief, as the buildings are already there in the neighborhood. Yet the state has no housing program designed to support the work of acquiring small properties for affordable housing preservation.

Some municipalities, such as Boston and Somerville, have already designated municipal funds to help nonprofits acquire housing off the market to convert into long-term affordable housing, and this is an approach that is working!  Recently, Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust acquired and preserved a six-family building in Uphams Corner where tenants have been fighting eviction for four years and now have a permanently affordable home as tenants with a voice in management. Chinatown Community Land Trust purchased two brick row houses and is now selling seven permanently affordable condo units to low-income, first-time homebuyers, and the Asian Community Development Corporation recently acquired a building on Beach Street to preserve 15 affordable residential units and stabilize the future of a legacy small business on the ground floor.

But many more opportunities have been lost, because Boston’s Acquisition Opportunity Program or Somerville’s 100 Homes Initiative cannot fund this work alone.

Our communities of color and seniors are the most vulnerable to eviction and displacement. In fact, race is the strongest predictor of eviction in Boston, where 70% of pandemic eviction filings have been in census tracts where the majority of renters are people of color. Existing housing is quickly being lost to investors who raise rents or sell at unaffordable prices. For every new affordable unit constructed in the U.S. each year, two units are lost to deterioration, abandonment and conversion to luxury housing! We need acquisition and preservation to be an important piece of our housing solutions.

Current state housing programs tend to prioritize larger projects and new construction, or work to preserve existing subsidized housing, with no funding mechanism that meets the challenging work of acquiring smaller properties off the market — yet these smaller properties are a huge part of the Commonwealth’s housing stock. And in the year immediately preceding the pandemic, in 20 Hub and Gateway cities, approximately two-thirds of multifamily housing sales above four units were cash sales, meaning that we are losing our small property housing stock to speculative investors every day.

That is why we are working with state Sen. Pat Jehlen and other legislators to propose a Small Properties State Acquisition Funding Pilot to help tenants and community nonprofits acquire and preserve existing housing as long-term affordable housing.

We are proposing a $20 million pilot program to support communities hit hardest by gentrification, displacement and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposed program would fund tenant associations and qualified organizations to support acquisition, rehabilitation and long-term preservation of affordable housing, and would be set up to supplement other acquisition soft loans from municipalities or other affordable housing lenders. It would focus specifically on the smaller properties (eight units or less) which are hardest to fund, but which represent the family housing that is slipping away, unit by unit, three-decker by three-decker, across the state.

Another critical policy is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which passed the legislature last session only to be vetoed by the governor. This enabling act would give cities and towns the option of adopting a tenants’ right-to-purchase policy when a landlord that owns seven or more units of rental housing decides to sell a multifamily building. It includes no price controls and offers clear and reasonable benchmarks that tenants must meet to exercise their rights, but it puts a priority on tenants remaining in their homes over making the fastest sale to a speculative cash buyer.

Policies like these are within our grasp if we have the political will to prioritize stable homes and communities.

On behalf of the Greater Boston CLT Network: John Smith, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative; Meridith Levy, Boston Neighborhood Community Land Trust; and Lydia Lowe, Chinatown Community Land Trust;

Symone Crawford, Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance;

Joe Kriesberg, Massachusetts Association of CDCs; Elvis Méndez, Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts;

For Homes for All Massachusetts: Denise Matthews-Turner and Mike Leyba, City Life/Vida Urbana; Isaac Simon Hodes, Lynn United for Change; and Rose Webster-Smith, Springfield No One Leaves