Lynn’s public land should benefit the public

Use city property to promote affordable housing

 

IF THERE IS ONE  key lesson to learn from these past months under COVID shutdown, it is that all of the social inequalities in our society are linked together, and that all of them impact our ability to withstand a crisis. The failure of our healthcare system to handle coronavirus was made more severe by Lynn’s lack of affordable housing. People could not self-isolate in increasingly unstable and crowded living conditions.

Articles in newspapers, peer-reviewed scientific journals like Public Health, and researchers across the country have made this connection clear. One study found that “neighborhoods with large numbers of people per household have about 3.7 times the rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 1,000 residents as neighborhoods where few residents live in tight quarters” (CalMatters, June 26 2020). Overcrowding was identified as a social determinant of health in Lynn by 1199 SEIU, and has repeatedly been cited as a major issue by participants in the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Housing Lynn study.

The housing developments downtown and on the waterfront are asking for $2,000-$2,500 per month for a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment – this translates to an annual income of at least $100,000, making these units completely unaffordable to over 80 percent of the city, according to Census data. Housing priced for Lynners is scarce, and new housing construction only targets the higher end of the market. This scarcity impacts black, immigrant, and working-class individuals and families the hardest. Gentrification (the rapid shifting of working-class neighborhoods to appeal to new upper-income residents) leads to displacement (when current residents of a neighborhood are priced out and can no longer afford to live in their own community). Displacement in turn leads directly to overcrowded and uninhabitable living conditions, and negatively impacts public health in our black, immigrant, and working-class neighborhoods, and in the city overall.

We know that Lynn residents are predominantly people of color (about 65 percent), and predominantly lower income. The downtown area has the highest concentration of people of color and of poverty rates, so it is not surprising that these communities have the highest rates of housing instability. We know that over 50 percent of our city’s workforce is in “essential” work with direct interaction with the general public (data from 2020 Census returns). When this combines with the ongoing housing crisis in Lynn, we can easily see why we became and continue to be a coronavirus hotspot.

Building new housing that is priced appropriately for the full range of Lynn’s income levels is an essential part of building a thriving, sustainable city. And yet, based on what buildings are going up and the resistance many organizations meet when we talk about housing for all of us, there seems to be a single-minded focus on so-called “market rate” developments with rents and prices set according to a regional market that includes Boston, Cambridge, Newburyport, Manchester-By-The-Sea, and other wealthy communities. On average, Lynn’s incomes are a mere 50-60 percent of our region’s area median income.

One important strategy that can significantly impact Lynn’s housing future is using public land – land owned by the city of Lynn – for public benefit.

After the people who live, work, and make community here, land is perhaps Lynn’s most economically valuable asset. Only 12 miles from Boston, Lynn holds the most un- and under-developed land in the region. Our city is also in the middle of a significant economic pinch, and we expect a long economic recovery period as we continue moving out of the COVID crisis. We have seen the impacts of major economic downturns on our city, we lose jobs and houses faster than other communities in the area do. Lynn’s foreclosure rate was significantly higher than the state average following the 2008 economic crash.

The scarcity of land and costs of land and construction in our region are frequently identified as the main barriers to building housing that Lynners can afford. Housing costs are rising, as is the cost of living overall, and our wages cannot keep up. These problems are regional and national, but Lynn can make an impact locally.

The value of public land is that it is meant to serve a public need while also contributing to our city’s struggling economy. Properties owned by the city, like schools and parking lots, are currently used to meet the needs of people who work and live in our city. Because we have such a tight municipal budget, and we are likely facing a long economic recovery, city officials reasonably want to maximize the sale price of these properties. Because about 80 percent of our city’s revenue comes from residential property taxes, city officials want to impose the highest taxable value on these parcels by developing housing for a high-end market that does not exist in Lynn. But what is the point of generating revenue with the use of public land if that money will not benefit the people who live here now? Our taxes paid for these properties, therefore we should benefit from them. Privatizing this public land effectively privatizes the benefits that we’ve already paid for, while exacerbating the gentrification and displacement we already experience.

Further, we can look at the development of housing priced for current Lynn residents as a way to decrease overcrowding, address racial disparities, increase civic engagement, and even create much-needed jobs for Lynn residents. The New Lynn Coalition has been working with nonprofit developers and the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust to create such a plan. By offering first-source hiring and local preference for housing (legal mechanisms to ensure Lynners have first access to jobs and units available), and developing a robust civic engagement element to the site planning, we can look at housing not just as a quick financial transaction, but as a real investment in our city’s future.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Feinberg

Director of organization and development, New Lynn Coalition
As the city itself sets the value of the land it sells, we recommend a policy on the disposition of public lands that gives preference to nonprofit developers building homes targeted to  Lynn’s more modest incomes, that invests in community participation and civic engagement in the design of these sites, and that gives preference for units and jobs to Lynn residents. We further recommend a community oversight committee tasked with creating and implementing a democratic community vision and development plan in partnership with MAPC and Lynn’s new City Planner, that has the authority to approve or deny development proposals on public land.

Vacant land is our city’s most basic resource. The public must have a real say in how it is used. We are in a moment of great transformation, and we must ensure that our city transforms in a way that benefits all of us. Another exclusionary “market-rate” tower will further gentrify the city, drive up housing costs, and exacerbate displacement, overcrowding, and homelessness (especially among families and the elderly). Instead, we can invest in our future by bringing those most negatively impacted by the housing crisis into the planning process, building new housing for our families, elders, and youth, and expanding our vision of development to be about the people who have invested their lives and taxes in our city.

Jonathon Feinberg is a musician and activist in Lynn, with a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy and planning; he applies this knowledge as a “peoples’ planner,” serving as the director of organizing and development for the New Lynn Coalition. He can be reached by email at NewLynnCoalition@gmail.com.