Housing pressures increase in Boston

in The Boston Globe on June 16, 2014 by Lawrence Harmon

THE DIFFICULTY of finding and holding onto an economical rental unit in Boston is enough to make a grown man cry. Not just any man, but Stephen Key, a Hall of Fame member of the World Martial Arts Federation. Key, 53, has shown the skill and courage needed to reach grandmaster status in kung fu. Yet he shed tears last week while describing his efforts to keep a roof over the head of his wife and three children on Norwell Street in Dorchester after government-sponsored mortgage giant Fannie Mae foreclosed on his former landlord and moved to evict the building’s tenants.

“We try to do the right thing,” said Key, who planted roses on a street known for the illegal dumping of construction debris and, in a few cases, corpses. “Just because we live where we live doesn’t mean we can’t live well.”

The larger question is how long Key and thousands of other low- and moderate-income tenants can continue to live in Boston at all given the city’s high rents and upmarket housing inventory. Of the 6,600 apartments and ownership units under construction across the city, only 22 percent are deemed affordable to households earning between $50,000 and $100,000, according to city figures. The northern sections of the city, including the Back Bay, Charlestown, and the Fenway, are pretty much out of the reach of families who can’t manage $3,500 monthly rents. And it won’t take long before well-heeled newcomers start flocking in earnest to Roxbury, Hyde Park, and other neighborhoods where housing costs are lower — for now, at least.

Boston is opening up wider each day to young, highly educated professionals with good job prospects and family resources to fall back on when the time comes to buy or rent a home. Restaurants and entertainment venues that cater to their sophisticated tastes are cropping up everywhere. It’s an exciting time for them and the city in general. But it’s an anxious time for the 23,000 low-income Boston households who have no subsidies to fall back on and are now paying more than half of their income on housing.

These are the signs of spring in Boston: Fannie Mae dickering around with a well-respected nonprofit housing group — Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure — that wants to buy the foreclosed Norwell Street property and keep Key in place; Bank of America backing out of one of the state’s leading programs for first-time homebuyers, which will likely force borrowers to pay higher interest rates elsewhere; and the Walsh administration signaling that it wants to help middle income families — those earning in the $80,000 to $100,000 range — to secure homes in the city at the possible expense of those who earn less.

Every affordable housing unit in Boston is worth fighting for. State Attorney General Martha Coakley sent a good message earlier this month when she sued Fannie Mae for its alleged failure to engage in the state’s foreclosure buyback programs. But the Walsh administration appears torn between using its limited resources to help those on the lower end of the income scale or steer homebuyer assistance funds and city-owned parcels to families whose earnings push six figures. The mayor’s priorities should be clear in a few weeks when his housing task force provides him with policy recommendations.

The city has direct control over about $29 million in affordable housing funds each year from sources such as linkage payments from developers of large-scale downtown construction projects. The money doesn’t stretch very far. Such funds would be put to fairer use by going to bat for families who earn less than the city’s median household income of $65,000 or pay more than half of their income on rent.

Private developers, meanwhile, could be weaned from building downtown luxury towers and given incentives to build apartments for the middle class in outlying neighborhoods. But that requires sufficient height and density to make their projects bankable. It becomes clearer every day that there will be no rent or mortgage relief for moderate-income families in Boston until developers are provided with zoning relief.

Mayor Walsh awaits the final report from his housing task force. Stephen Key is waiting for his day in court where he hopes to prevail over Fannie Mae. Much of Boston, meanwhile, is waiting for a solution to a housing crisis that seems to grow worse by the month.