Fight racism, pause development on public land in Roxbury

Concentration of poverty has profound effects on community

CITY OFFICIALS deliberately designed Boston to separate the Black community and prevent it from taking advantage of the economic success Boston has seen. Nowhere is this more more evident than in Roxbury, which is 50 percent Black and 11 percent White, compared with wealthy Back Bay, which is 73 percent White and 4 percent Black. Roxbury has a 31 percent poverty rate compared to the citywide rate of 19 percent. It has the highest proportion of families making under $15,000 a year and the lowest proportion of families making over $150,000. 

However, Roxbury was not always like this. Through land development, Boston segregated the city, and those policies continue today. To allow for a more equitable Boston, a group of community activists and a city councilor are looking to change this through a pause on development.

Starting in the 1930s, the government issued Roxbury a D, the lowest grade possible, through redlining,” making it unlikely to obtain a mortgage there. Additionally, realtors frequently block-busted” neighborhoods, racial covenants were devised, and banks refused to provide mortgages to Black families.

These policies and practices made it impossible for families of color to live anywhere but where the government wanted them to live, and in Boston, this happened to be in Roxbury. 

During the 1960s, the federal government started urban renewal programs incentivizing local governments to revitalize blighted” neighborhoods. Boston created a new group for this, named the Boston Redevelopment Agency (BRA), now the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), and funneled tens of millions of dollars to purchase and demolish large swathes of land in communities of color in the name of revitalization. One of the projects was Washington Park in Roxbury, which displaced 1,700 families, 73 percent of whom were Black. 

The scars on the community are still evident today as large empty lots are scattered throughout Roxbury and are now being sold to the highest bidder by the BPDA. 

The bidders on these lots have mostly been multi-billion-dollar corporations owned and operated by White men. While the BPDA has insisted that the projects will benefit Roxbury, similar statements were made by the BRA in the 1960s

When developers build on these lots, they benefit from the BPDAs 80 years of racist practices.

Affordable housing units, which do benefit the Boston-metro area, are touted as benefits for Roxbury. However, affordable units are mostly rental, meaning no allowance for generational wealth building. Additionally, there is no guarantee that any units will go to Roxbury residents. In Boston, affordable housing is a lottery system that cannot prioritize residents of neighborhoods, meaning anyone from across the city can move into the affordable housing in Roxbury. 

Because over half of Roxburys housing units are income-restricted rentals, the highest amount in Boston, applicants are more likely to move to Roxbury when applying for affordable housing, further concentrating poverty. 

 Over the past decade, Roxburyshare of Bostons impoverished has increased, while the share in majority White neighborhoods has mainly decreased. This concentration of poverty has profound effects on the community of Roxbury and is a 21st century form of segregation. Meanwhile, at the edges of Roxbury, gentrification is ever-more present. The BPDA has allowed Northeastern University to develop luxury dorms while over-enrolling students, leaving thousands to live off campus.

The BPDA needs to contemplate its racist legacy and reconsider the impact of developments. However, the BPDA is unlikely to so on their own. So together with Roxburys city councilor, Tania Fernandes Anderson, a group of over 40 community leaders introduced a moratorium, calling for a stop to development on all publicly owned land within the district to fight against the 80-year war on Roxbury and Black residents of Boston.

Steven Murnane is a political science graduate student at Suffolk University who has worked for several Boston city councilors on public policy and development projects through the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA).