More than 29 years ago, at an anti-busing rally, Ted Landsmark was brutally bludgeoned on City Hall Plaza by an American-flag-wielding Joseph Rakes. The incident, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph that captured it, became definitive symbols of the era’s racial tensions.
A generation later, inequalities still exist, but, by and large, the city’s races are no longer fighting each other in the streets; instead, they’re fighting the developers who want to bulldoze their neighborhoods. The Boston City Council is pushing to make city housing policy more reflective of this new conflict, but in doing so, they’ve resurrected decades-old arguments about the role race should or shouldn’t play in housing policy.
Currently, the city of Boston recognizes the need to mitigate the effects of gentrification; that’s why the mayor requires developers to make a percentage of new housing units (between 10 and 15 percent) affordable—so that all of a neighborhood’s residents aren’t driven out of their homes by the rising costs of a development boom. But, City Councilor Paul Scapicchio argues, the affordable housing system isn’t accomplishing its mission of keeping neighborhoods intact.
“A little while ago, a new building went up at 226 Causeway,” Scapicchio explains. “There were 20 affordable units, and not one family from the area got in—it was all law students and graduates. I don’t think there was one family from anywhere. Something’s wrong with that.”
In response, Scapicchio filed legislation that would give some preference to neighborhood residents in Boston’s affordable housing lottery. Currently, the housing lottery is weighted toward city residents, as opposed to those seeking to move in from other places, and Scapicchio wants to add another tier of preference to the lottery, so that some affordable units—between one-fourth and one-fifth—would be set aside for residents of the neighborhood where the units are being built.
Scapicchio argues that the city has changed so much over the past 30 years—and even over the past 10—that racial integration no longer has to be the primary concern when shaping housing policy; in most neighborhoods, class, not race, should be considered most important. And nowhere is this more evident, Scapicchio argues, than in his own district, Eastie.
“East Boston is one of the most integrated neighborhoods in the city,” he says. “Salvadorans, Columbians, Irish and Italians all live next to each other. But as it’s becoming a desirable place to live, who’s getting forced out? It’s not just the old Italian families—it’s also the Latinos who are just putting their roots down in the neighborhood. We need to take care of these working folks who want to stay.”
Oddly enough, Scapicchio’s plan has received enthusiastic support from his colleagues who have traditionally been most sensitive to racial equality: Chuck Turner and Felix Arroyo.
“There is a lot more diversity in the neighborhoods now,” Arroyo says. “I’m not saying that diversity is not important. But the idea of a neighborhood is also important, and there’s a place for both concepts. If you can’t afford to live in the neighborhood you’ve lived in for 20 or 30 years, that shouldn’t be a penalty, regardless of race. Gentrification doesn’t integrate; gentrification displaces.”
“If you look at where these units are being developed, a vast majority are in JP, Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan,” Turner argues. “Affordable development is happening in communities that are very integrated, so a neighborhood preference would not do anything to offset the concept of integration.”
Whatever the practical implications are, however, there are clearly other emotions at play in this debate. Neighborhood preservation was the rallying cry when Rakes brutalized Landsmark, and though this debate is happening in a much different context, it has aroused some old feelings. “It’s a legitimate issue, but this is not the way to do it,” State Senator Dianne Wilkerson told the Dig. “It opens up old wounds at a time when we don’t need it.”
Victoria Williams, director of Boston’s Office of Civil Rights, agrees. According to her, Scapicchio’s neighborhood preference plan runs counter to the letter and spirit of the Fair Housing Act —a charge that’s especially volatile, given the city’s past of fostering gross segregation in public housing.
“Preferences are not permitted because they’re an impediment to equal housing access,” Williams told the Dig. She said that a municipal preference for Boston residents is allowed “because of the change in demographics—the city is more diverse as a municipality. It’s important that people who live in the city be able to stay in the city, but anything smaller than [a citywide preference] would be an impediment to equal housing access, and illegal.”
Asked whether race should continue to define housing policy, even in the face of the city’s rapidly dwindling middle class, Williams responded, “Race is the lens through which we look at the Fair Housing Act, because racial groups are protected classes of people, and economic groups are not.” She added that Scapicchio’s plan “may sound racially neutral, but because the city’s neighborhoods are very homogeneous, what sounds neutral will have a disparate impact on protected categories of people.”
Wilkerson echoes this sentiment. “We have to let go of the notion that people have a right to live in a certain neighborhood.”
Still, City Councilor John Tobin believes that looking at policy in Boston without the lens of race is worth at least half a shot. “I’m not so naive as to think that we’re completely relieved of racial tensions; I wish we were,” Tobin said. “But having grown up here, I can say that we’re a much healthier city, racially, than before. I know you have to understand the history, but by the same token, we have to have conversations about people, and not always people’s skin color.”