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Unlocking Black Boston’s wealth

Dianne Wilkerson

If Black Bostonians are to have a continued presence in this city, it is imperative to unlock Black Boston’s wealth. We know the statistics. Boston Black homeownership dropped to 30% post-COVID from 34% in 2019 and Black wages have stagnated for the past 30 years. Black and Latino businesses received less than 1% of city contracts just 2-3 years ago. Even if the numbers were to go up 1000%, that would amount to less than 10% in a city where close to 60% are residents of color.

But there is a silver lining up ahead. Despite the many oppressive government policies and private sector practices, there is a solid block of wealth in Boston’s Black community that, if unleashed, could kickstart major advancements for Black Boston that could guarantee the maintenance and even expansion of the city’s Black presence.

The city of Boston’s homebuyer program has produced 3,000 homeowners since 2000 who were able to purchase homes through the support of the city. Some 2,000 of these homeowners are in Roxbury and Dorchester, mostly Black and Latino residents. But it turns out they are homeowners in name only and enjoy little or none of the wealth-creating benefits of homeownership.

These 2,000 Black/Latino homeowners bought their homes with the understanding that there would be restrictions on their ability to refinance or sell their homes for some length of time. Many believed they would be restricted from selling for 10 years. The city wanted to prevent instant flipping and wanted the houses to be occupied by owners who intended to live in the homes and raise families. The Boston Planning and Development Agency’s restrictions for 10 years, maybe even 15, make sense even though they result in these homeowners living with more restrictions than tenants.

But the Mayor’s Office of Housing has insisted on restrictions for 30 years and is pressuring homeowners to opt to extend the restrictions an additional 20 years, which would result in what is, in essence, a lifetime restriction of 50 years.

Moreover, these homeowners must provide annual documentation of government ID and bills with their address. They must also secure permission from the Mayor’s Office of Housing to be away from their home for more than a few months. One woman in Roxbury sought permission to go stay with her children during COVID so as not to be alone during the pandemic. She was denied. The city’s corporation counsel office has been showing up at some of the homeowners’ places of employment and even sent someone to Atlanta looking for a Roxbury woman who works at a Boston hospital because she did not submit her annual documentation on time—not the best use of city resources.

There is little doubt that many of these homes would now yield $700,000 to $1 million in equity. Isn’t that exactly why you purchase a home, to see it appreciate and build equity? These homeowners should be able to realize equity. Master entrepreneur and billionaire Warren Buffet has stated that there are generally two ways of wealth creation: inheritance or real estate. The latter is much more likely for Boston’s Black and Latino residents.

By locking these homeowners into lifetime deed restrictions, the city has frozen wealth creation for thousands and denied the community and the city the financial benefits in the process. Worse, the policy is counterintuitive to the goal of wealth creation.

Imagine what would be possible if even a quarter of these 2,000 homeowners were able to realize their equity. There could be as much as a half billion dollars circulating in Roxbury and Dorchester, paying college tuition, paying for medical procedures, buying property, investing/starting new businesses and creating jobs. These Black and Latino homeowners would be potential purchasers of the many homes owned by Black seniors, who are currently the target of gentrifying speculators and whose homes represent the largest single source of Black wealth in the city.

The Wu administration could facilitate the creation of more Black and Latino wealth with one policy change. In her State of the City Address in January, Mayor Michelle Wu stated that racial equity and wealth creation was one of her top three priorities. She should unleash the wealth potential the city has locked for those Black and Latino homeowners who have lived in their homes purchased with city assistance for more than 10 years.

Dianne Wilkerson is a former Massachusetts state senator.