The Download: House hunting

Headlines about housing woes are usually followed by tales of low-income families squeezed by the sky-high cost of housing in Greater Boston. But that very difficult reality has obscured a very different housing story that is playing out in the state’s Gateway Cities, where subsidized housing has taken over local housing markets and is holding back the recovery of these second-tier cities.

In places like Springfield, New Bedford, and Lawrence, middle-class families have fled in large numbers, the municipal tax base is tapped out, and once vibrant downtowns are shells of their former selves.  Meanwhile, state housing programs to promote affordable housing, which may make lots of sense in high-cost markets like Boston and Cambridge, have only served to further concentrate the already pervasive poverty in Gateway Cities. 

Yesterday’s Boston Globe teed up the issue in the third installment in the paper’s must-read series of editorials on the challenges facing the state’s Gateway Cities.  The paper’s editorials are giving a great boost to the work MassINC‘s research team has done on Gateway Cities, including a 2009 research report on the housing challenge in Gateway Cities. 

As the MassINC report highlighted, state affordable housing programs have often been the only tool available to improve the dilapidated housing stock in Gateway Cities. But this antidote to soaring market prices in Boston has had the unintended consequence in Gateway Cities of skewing the population mix even further toward low-income households.  The Globe editorial notes that 80 percent of the housing in downtown Springfield is subsidized units.  As the Pioneer Institute reported in an earlier study, even programs aimed at affordable home ownership can end up holding back neighborhoods in Gateway Cities through deed restrictions that limit buyers’ ability to build equity.

The state has begun to acknowledge the need for a different approach to housing in these cities. A pilot program approved last year allocated $5 million to help support efforts to boost market-rate housing in these cities.  But more aggressive moves are needed if these cities are to regain the sort of income mix they once had, a necessary ingredient for any vibrant and healthy urban center. The state’s second-tier cities have great assets – cultural institutions, parks, and downtowns with lots of potential.  As yesterday’s editorial said, “At this moment, the ability of the gateway cities to serve their current citizens depends on a larger tax base, and there are signs that higher-income people want to come back to city centers. The state owes its gateway cities programs that help them to seize this opportunity now.”

                                                                                                                                                                                    –MICHAEL JONAS

GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS

On Sunday, the Globe‘s Patricia Wen, in the first of a three-part series, described how the $10 billion federal Supplemental Security Income program has made it financially attractive for poor families to have their children diagnosed with – and treated with medications for – various behavioral and mental conditions. In today’s installment, she documents the government’s failure to conduct follow-up assessments to determine whether children are still in need of treatment, a practice that is making the program more of an endless welfare entitlement than an effort to help families address – and successfully treat – childhood conditions.

BEACON HILL

Gov. Deval Patrick is showing early signs that he’ll carry a new, more aggressive posture into a second term, says the Globe‘s Frank PhillipsMike Levenson reports on Mo Cowan, the new chief of staff who will be beside Patrick as he does.

Herald op-ed columnist – and UMass trustee – Jennifer Braceras says that aggressive posture has Patrick hitting all the wrong notes in the search for a new UMass president.

Meanwhile, Patrick sits down for a Q&A with the Telegram & Gazette, talking about his energy policies, the probation scandal, and his plan to return to private life after serving out his term.

The Pioneer Institute has a new graphic that maps state spending broken down by agency.

WASHINGTON

Sen. John Kerry is pushing for approval of a fleet of Navy combat ships whose construction would add 500 jobs at a computer facility in Pittsfield, reports the Globe.  Critics, including Kerry’s fellow Navy veteran John McCain, say the proposal is ill-advised.

The Globe reported Sunday that Sen. Scott Brown raked in a big pile of campaign donations from the financial industry last summer as the Senate was nearing final resolution of new regulations that Brown molded to the industry’s liking.  Peter Gelzinis slaps around Brown – and gives a possible 2012 challenger, Michael Capuano, a prominent forum for doing the same.

David M. Shribman, in the Salem Newswrites about the changed political landscape in Washington.

Ron Paul gets his star turn in the New York Times, weeks after the iconoclastic GOP congressman received similar treatment in the Atlantic. True to form, Slate goes all contrarian on Paul, highlighting a political boomlet we’ll call Libertarians Against Ron Paul.

An Alaskan Superior Court throws out Joe Miller‘s election complaint against Sen. Lisa Murkowski. He has until Tuesday to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Embattled Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele is likely to bail out of a re-election campaign. Political Wire via Politico.

Ilan Berman argues in the American Spectator that key factors are missing from START.

Jim Manzi argues in National Review that the US should “unbundle” the functions of the modern welfare state.

EDUCATION

The Globe reports on the leadership roles being taken up at Bay State campuses by returning veterans heading to college. 

A proposed middle-senior high school in East Bridgewater would cost about $76 million, with the town contributing $33.5 million, and the remaining $42.6 million coming from the state School Building Authority, reports the Enterprise.

One quarter (26 percent) of Hingham High School freshmen and juniors said in a survey that they had been to a party where parents were present and allowed them to drink, reports the Enterprise.

Plans are in the works for new bike paths at UMass Dartmouth, reports the Herald News.

TRANSPARENCY

The Eagle-Tribune, citing closed-door Methuen City Council meetings, says the Open Meeting Law is vital.

ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT 

Ian Bowles, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, writes a letter to the organization that oversees the region’s power grid and urges it to let Salem Harbor Station close. The Salem News reports the letter was made public by the Conservation Law Foundation.

Anxiety is growing over coyotes in Nahant, the Lynn Item reports.

It’s been two years since the 2008 ice storm, and Fitchburg residents still dislike Unitil.

Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge, and Great Barrington are considering opposing General Electric’s latest plan to build PCB storage facilities as part of the effort to clean-up the contaminated Housatonic River.

To beat the high cost of shipping out its solid waste, the Cape needs to look at ways to reduce the trash the region generates, notes a Cape Cod Times editorial.

New Bedford is seeking funds for environmental projects in the Acushnet River/New Bedford Harbor area to help clean up the contaminated waters, reports the New Bedford Standard Times. (registration required)

The New Bedford Standard-Times reports Freetown’s pay-as-you-throw trash and curbside recycling programs have resulted in a 29 per cent increase in recycling and a 56 per cent decrease in household trash generation (registration required).

PROBATION

The lawyer for embattled Probation chief John O’Brien finally returns a call from the State House News Service, and calls his client a “scapegoat for a systemic process in the culture of state government.”

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Fall River officials have launched a searchable online database of available commercial properties, hoping to attract the interest of businesses and investors. State economic development officials put a similar database of regional investment opportunities online last year.

Improvements to freight rail lines in western Massachusetts may signal new boom times for the region.

BANKS AND BANKING

The Patriot Ledger reports that community banks and credit unions are trying to lure customers away from larger banks in the wake of increased fees at some larger institutions.

TRANSPORTATION

Critics are hitting California’s high-speed “train to nowhere,” in a sign that rail funding across the country may be on the chopping block.