During the Summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to live with my older brother in his Boston apartment overlooking Davis Square. My view of Davis Square from my bedroom window was pretty incredible, as I could see from a bird’s eye view the brick-paved square and its colorful mix of coffee shops, local stores, restaurants, bars, and theaters all bustling with activity. I had visited my brother here endless times before and had always wanted to stay a summer, so when I found a job close by and was able to pay for my own room, I jumped at the chance. Even though I knew that Boston was one of the highest cost-of-living regions in the United States, I just had to live there if only for a few months. As I gazed out over the square right after moving in to the apartment, I wondered how I was able to get such a great room in an extremely popular and expensive part of town … and then reality hit me as I looked back into the room I was staying in. My “room” was actually the walk-in closet to my older brother’s room, and measured a snug eight feet long by about 4 feet wide. What is really absurd is that I was paying close to what I pay now for my entire Charlottesville apartment.
Although Boston may be a tourist hot spot with many appealing features such as historical sites, higher educational institutes, and popular public spaces like Davis Square, when comes down to price and the cost of living, I probably should have stayed in Charlottesville for the summer. Just to put it in context, comparing Boston cost-of-living with Charlottesville and supposing you had a salary of $50.000: Housing in Charlottesville will cost 25% less and Utilities will cost 32% less (Not to mention lower groceries, transportation, and healthcare costs). When comparing Boston’s cost-of-living with the national average, things get even worse. Boston’s cost of living is 137 compared to the U.S. average of 100.0 with the Average House Price at $418,700, nearly double that of the national average. So what is the solution to this shortage problem of affordable housing in Boston?
A solution that I have found to be quite successful in other major cities to increase the amount of affordable housing, and would like to see utilized more in Boston, is taking control of properties that were previously privately owned. To do this, cities foreclose on properties that are defaulting in paying city taxes. Two excellent examples of this are Chicago and Cuyahoga County in Cleveland.
Chicago’s Troubled Building Initiative
In Chicago, under the Troubled Buildings Initiative, “enforcement officials offer the owners of derelict or tax-delinquent properties a choice: either repair the building in order to bring it up to code or to deed the building to the city.” Building off of the success of the Troubled Building Initiative, Chicago has incorporated other major programs such as the Vacant Buildings Program and Homeownership Preservation Initiative in order to address the problems that arise from the currently open, vacant properties such as crime and public safety issues. In addition to addressing the properties already vacant, these initiatives focus on preventing properties from becoming vacant in the first place by helping families who are in danger of losing their house. (http://chicago2ndward.com/for-residents/vacant-buildings)
Cuyahoga County’s Land Bank
With the relatively recent acquisition of the county land bank, the process for acquiring tax-foreclosed properties has been shortened from as long as two years to just 45 days. The independent government corporation can also buy discounted properties in bulk from banks or loan servicers. Land banks such as Cuyahoga’s are great tools to acquire, hold, and transfer buildings as well as vacant lots. As Sarah Treuhaft, Kalima Rose, and Karen Black explain in their article, Reclaiming Foreclosed Properties for Community Benefit, “Land banks usually will possess property management capacities and have clear public purpose responsibilities for the subsequent disposition of property, such as neighborhood stabilization or affordable housing.” While Boston has several land trusts established, few are achieving any significant results in terms of affordable housing. Boston needs to create a land bank with expanded powers for expediting the process to acquire and manage foreclosed properties.
There are a number of different strategies for attacking the affordable housing problem in Boston as well as many other cities around the country. Programs such as Chicago’s Troubled Building Initiative and Cuyahoga’s Land Bank are prime examples of what Boston needs to start doing if it wants to keep its residents happy and to make sure they stay there. I personally know that the appeal of Boston keeps bringing me back to visit, but if I plan on ever settling down there, it would only happen if they can bring their prices down and offer me some affordable housing.
Guest Contributor: Tim Gaylord